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Matt wins World Cup slalom on a day for veterans

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JEROME PUGMIRE | December 15, 2013 09:23 AM EST | AP

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VAL D'ISERE, France (AP) — On a day dominated by veterans, 34-year-old Mario Matt won his 14th World Cup slalom race to equal his Austrian countryman Benjamin Raich's mark while 35-year-old Patrick Thaler of Italy got on the podium for first time in nearly five years.

Matt, a two-time former slalom world champion, safely protected his first-run lead while other contenders struggled on the notoriously tough Stade Olympique de Bellevarde course.

"The last two years I was a few times on the podium, but always had some small mistakes on the runs and didn't win," Matt said. "I don't have the feeling I'm old. Sometimes I have the problems with the back but I already had this eight years ago, and when I don't have the problems I feel fine."

He beat Sweden's Mattias Hargin by 0.53 seconds and Thaler — second after the first run — by 0.78 for his 15th overall World Cup win, with the other coming in supercombined.

"You have to push your limits in order to win but I was still surprised how fast I was in the first run," Matt said. "I think no one felt too comfortable, but at least in the second run the first part felt really good so I can't complain."

Matt was second in the slalom at Levi, Finland, last month and his most recent previous win was at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, in March 2011, while his first was nearly 14 years ago at Kitzbuehel, Austria.

"We trained in great conditions this fall, so that's maybe why I am in good shape this early in the season," he said.

It was another disappointing day for the United States. Neither Ted Ligety, who finished the first run in 39th, nor Bode Miller, who went off course, qualified for the second run.

Austrian Marcel Hirscher also failed to qualify. He won Saturday's GS but struggled on the tricky top section and finished way down in 41st.

Matt, the slalom world champion in 2001 and '07, is coming into form at just the right time for February's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"It's still far away," Matt said. "Hopefully I can get other good results this year."

Hargin was fifth at Levi and it was his first podium since finishing third at Schladming, Austria, in January 2011.

"I've been fighting a lot and it meant a lot to get the podium today," the 28-year-old said. "We've worked really hard and we have a new coach this season."

Thaler's only other podium — also third in a slalom at Kitzbuehel, Austria — was even longer ago, in January 2009.

"I think I'm the oldest guy ever on the podium in the slalom," he said. "I was a bit emotional."

Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Grange finished fourth, 0.04 behind Thaler, and Sweden's Markus Larsson was fifth in a far-from-usual top five.

Hirscher has won four races overall at Val d'Isere and has tallied seven podiums. He was aiming for a second consecutive podium double after winning last year's GS and finishing third in the slalom, but hopes of a repeat double ended when he made a huge error on the top section and finished 4 seconds slower than Matt in the first run.

Matt was 0.32 seconds faster than Thaler and 0.49 ahead of Grange after an early-morning run under clear, blue skies but with temperatures bitingly cold.

Ligety, 11th at Levi and who on Saturday failed to make a GS second run for the first time in nearly five years, was 3.59 slower than Matt. Miller almost fell on the treacherous top section, recovered, but then lost control.

Frenchman Alexis Pinturault — who was fourth in GS — went off course near the bottom, while Austria's Manfred Pranger also veered off after starting strongly.

On a brighter note for the Americans, 29-year-old David Chodounsky finished seventh for a career best slalom performance.