By Lisa Engel
Michael Matz is an iconic horseman. In 2006 he was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame after riding in the 1976, 1992 and 1996 Olympics — including as part of the 1996 silver medal U.S. Show Jumping Team, where he also carried the flag for the closing ceremonies as a national hero. In 1989, he and his then fiancée (now wife) DD Alexander, were traveling from judging a horse show in Hawaii when their plane, United Flight 232, crashed, killing 111 people. Michael risked his life to save four children from the burning plane.
Michael retired from show jumping as the top money-winning rider in American history, claiming over $1.7 million in his career. In 1998 he turned to training racehorses, where he also had great success including winning the 2006 Kentucky Derby with Barbaro and the 2012 Belmont Stakes with Union Rags. As a husband, horse trainer and father in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Michael is a busy man. Sidelines was grateful for the opportunity to catch up with him.
How many children do you have?
I have 6 — my eldest is 36 and my youngest is 14.
How did you get started with riding?
I used to cut the lawn at George Cole’s house when I was a teenager. He asked me if I knew how to ride, and I said yes because I wanted to keep my job cutting his grass.
What career path would you have chosen if horses were not an option?
I was supposed to take over my father’s plumbing business.
Who inspired you the most in riding?
There were quite a few when I first started. Pony Club, Bernie Traurig, Mr. Ward in Ohio, Jerry Baker, Bert DeNemethy in Gladstone, the European riders and Nelson Pessoa.
What three things are the most important to you?
My family, integrity and respect. You should treat people as you would want them to treat you.
What’s your daily schedule?
In the morning, I’m so focused on what I’m doing and trying not to miss anything, with six children and the horses. That’s the biggest focus that I have, and when I finish with that, I just like to relax and read a little bit.
What’s the best feeling you have ever had?
There are so many. You feel proud and I think that’s what you try to look back on. Having a horse like Jet Run to ride and Barbaro to train, there are a lot of great situations I’ve had. I’ve been lucky so far with the horses and the people who have been around me. Carrying the flag in the closing Olympic ceremony was a big thrill in Atlanta, the Kentucky Derby win was a big one and now watching my kids ride is really great.
What are the 3 traits you look for in a horse?
I look at its conformation, ability and try to get a sense of the horse’s heart. The heart is the most important part — you can’t see it until you actually compete. Does the horse want it? That’s the most important trait.
What was your best vacation?
I’m not a vacation guy. I get nervous to be away. So maybe there will be a difference when I retire. I don’t like to put all that responsibility on others.
Do you have a “bucket list”? If so, what tops that list?
I’d love to have another nice horse to run in the Classics. I mostly train for breeders. I’m lucky with the owners I have right now and they’re very supportive.
Do you have a personal motto?
Put yourself in a good position — whether it’s riding a horse, looking for a job or choosing your friends.
How would you like to be remembered?
My integrity means a lot, so to be an honest person. You’ll never go wrong by telling the truth. I’d like to be remembered as an honest person who tried to do his best, whether it was good enough or not. Doing what you can do — if it wasn’t good enough, you did what you could. If you’re consistent enough, your day will come.