LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Michael Matz is just 1 miles from a second trip to the Kentucky Derby.
The trainer's first visit to Churchill Downs turned into a Derby for the ages, when undefeated Barbaro won two years ago by an astonishing 6½ lengths -- the largest winning margin in 60 years.
Visionaire might not be another Barbaro, but Matz is counting on his latest 3-year-old Derby hopeful to come through in Saturday's $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. A strong showing, and it's off to Louisville three weeks later.
"We're looking for a sign that he's going in the right direction," Matz said. "We're just taking it one step at a time."
The final step will have to be a huge one. The 1-mile Blue Grass features perhaps the strongest Derby prep of the season. A field of 12 -- the largest since 1982 -- was entered. Leading Derby contender and Louisiana Derby winner Pyro is the even-money favorite, with Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man the second choice at 4-1.
Visionaire, winner of the fog-shrouded Gotham Stakes last month, is the co-third choice at 6-1 along with Big Truck, the Tampa Bay Derby winner.
While Barbaro prepped for the Derby by three winning races in Florida, Visionaire has racked up the frequent flier miles. He's won three of five races -- all at different tracks, and will be running at Keeneland on Polytrack for the first time.
"Right now, he's just a different type of horse than Barbaro was," Matz said. "That's why we took a different type of schedule to get to the Kentucky Derby. I wish I would have a little bit more time than three weeks before the Derby, but we're just hoping he's finishing at the end."
Visionaire has been improving all year. The son of Grand Slam opened eyes with a 5½-length allowance victory at Florida's Gulfstream Park on Jan. 4. After the race, Barry Irwin's Team Valor purchased a 51 percent interest in the chestnut colt from Vision Racing, which bought him last year for $200,000.
Matz then shipped Visionaire to the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where the colt finished third, 2¾ lengths behind Pyro in the Risen Star on Feb. 9.
In the Gotham at New York's Aqueduct, Visionaire drew the No. 10 post and dropped back to last under Jose Lezcano. When the field emerged from the fog in the stretch, though, the colt was running down Texas Wildcatter and won by a nose.
After drawing the outside No. 12 post for the Blue Grass, Matz expects a similar scenario to develop.
"It's a little more difficult from the outside, so we'll just have to do what we did in the Gotham," Matz said. "We're basically looking for a race where he can make a little step forward -- and this is a little longer distance for him."