04/02/2008 12:00AM

Another chance to salute

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ARCADIA, Calif. - There have been Santa Anita Derby winners named for a movie character (Skywalker), a baseball coach (Larry the Legend), a western gunfighter (Jim French), and a racing pamphleteer (Indian Charlie) who, by his own admission, tries not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Santa Anita Derby winner Brocco was Cubby Broccoli, the original producer of the James Bond films. Ruken was J. Rukin Jelks, close friend of breeder and owner Lou Rowan. Buddy Gil was Tom Gilmer, a real estate broker, and Brother Derek was Derek Tillotson, a young Mormon missionary. Then there was last year's winner, Tiago, the son of the legendary Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes.

Now comes Colonel John, who will attempt to add his name to the list on Saturday, when he heads the field for the 71st running of the Santa Anita Derby.

The real Colonel John is Lt. Col. John Geider, who spent a year in Iraq not long ago as acting operations officer for the Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There was no shortage of work, some of it performed under fire.

Geider is a close friend of Bill and Susan Casner, whose WinStar Farm colors will be carried on Saturday by Colonel John in hopes that a good effort will keep the ball rolling all the way to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

Colonel John, who is 3 for 5, was bred by Susan Casner from a mare she picked out of a sale, then matched with Tiznow, the WinStar stallion who not only won back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics, but a Santa Anita Handicap as well. Of course, the Santa Anita main track of 2001 bears no resemblance to the synthetic surface over which the Derby will be run on Saturday. And as far as Bill Casner is concerned, that is a major reason Colonel John has been able to get this far this fast for trainer Eoin Harty.

"He has never missed a day of training," Casner said Wednesday, from his home near Dallas, before heading West. "He has never had a filled ankle. He has never had a hot knee. Through this whole process, he has never missed a work. I think he is the poster child for what synthetic surfaces can do for a horse."

Casner is a true believer in the new technology, even though Colonel John and the rest of the Santa Anita horse population had to work around serious interruptions in training and racing during January and early February, when the synthetic Cushion Track failed to handle rain properly.

"Santa Anita was a victim of a poor installation, a poor contractor," said Casner, who was the founder of B&R Equipment, a north Texas company specializing in large earth-moving machinery. "The sand they used had about a 28 percent silt content that clogged up the base. But when you look at the surface they have now as far as its ability to absorb shock and prevent injury, it's done its job.

"One of the biggest problems we experience as owners is the absolutely horrendous attrition rate of our young horses," Casner went on. "On a national average, I think about 60 percent of all foals get to the races, and that may be closer to 55 percent. That's a devastating number, financially and emotionally.

"If we had the luxury, we probably wouldn't race these horses until they were 4 or 5 years old," Casner added. "The soft bones of younger horses are subjected to incredible strains. Speed has been the emphasis in breeding, and that produces a lighter limb with a smaller foot, which means the stresses are concentrated in smaller areas."

As one of Kentucky's top commercial farms, WinStar has a lot riding on sons of Tiznow. Tiznow himself fell victim to a hind leg injury at 2 that prevented him from making his first start until late April of his 3-year-old season in 2000, when the Triple Crown had all but passed him by. Colonel John has dramatically outperformed his sire to this point, but the climb gets steep from here. Tiznow was able to come on strong through the rest of 2000 for trainer Jay Robbins to win four major stakes and be named Horse of the Year.

"The Tiznows tend to be big, growthy horses, and they're hard on themselves," Casner noted. "But the numbers are bearing it out. More of them are staying sound and getting to the races on these synthetic surfaces, and we make our decisions accordingly on where to send our young horses."

Chances are, the easygoing Colonel John will sleep through most of Saturday before he is roused to run in the Santa Anita Derby later that afternoon. When he came over for the Sham Stakes, which he won on March 1 after a 68-day break, one of his handlers noticed sleep creases from a long and satisfying nap.

"That's him," Casner said. "He doesn't get too nervous, even under pressure situations."

Just like a guy who builds roads and bridges in a combat zone?

"You always have to be careful when you name a horse for someone," Casner said. "And you hate to waste a good name on a horse that does not perform to your hopes. So far, that hasn't been the case for Colonel John."