08/23/2008 12:00AM

Colonel John in a squeaker

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Barbara D. Livingston
Colonel John (right) prevailed in a stirring stretch battle with Mambo in Seattle to win Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes by a nose.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Colonel John not only proved he could handle dirt, but he showed he could win a dogfight too.

In a stirring stretch duel reminiscent of Friday's Grade 1 Personal Ensign here won by Ginger Punch, Colonel John was able to get his nose down on the wire ahead of Mambo in Seattle to win Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes before a crowd of 40,723 at Saratoga. It was the eighth time in the 139-year history of the Travers that the margin of victory was a nose. The last time it happened was in 1998 when Coronado's Quest nosed out Victory Gallop.

It was 5 1/4 lengths back to 7-2 favorite Pyro, who got third by a neck over Harlem Rocker. He was followed in the order of finish by Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara, Court Vision, Tale of Ekati, Macho Again, Tizbig, Amped, Cool Coal Man, and Tres Borrachos.

For the connections of Mambo in Seattle, it was another heart-breaking defeat in the Travers. Last year, these same connections - owners William Farish and Mrs. William Kilroy, trainer Neil Howard, and jockey Robby Albarado - finished second by a half-length with Grasshopper to Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

“He ran well, I'm gratified; I feel good to train a horse like this,” Howard said. “From where I was watching the race I couldn't tell if I won or lost.”

The finish was so tight that Albarado raised his stick in celebration when he crossed the wire. Albardo told EPSN analyst Jerry Bailey immediately afterward that he thought he won it.

Eoin Harty, the trainer of Colonel John, thought watching it live that his horse had lost. He said it was reminiscent of 10 years ago when, as an assistant trainer to Bob Baffert, Harty watched Real Quiet lose the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown by a nose to Victory Gallop.

“When they hit the wire I had flashbacks to Victory Gallop and Real Quiet in the Belmont Stakes,” Harty said. “I thought it was the exact same as that, so no I didn't think [I won] until I watched it again in slow motion.”

It was Colonel John's first victory on dirt. His only other race over that surface was in the Kentucky Derby when he finished sixth as the second choice. Harty felt his horse lost all chance at the break that day.

Saturday, under Garrett Gomez, Colonel John leapt at the start, but found himself on the rail and sitting third as Da' Tara, under Alan Garcia, set the pace hounded by Tizbig, under Cornelio Velasquez. Da' Tara set fractions of 23.91 seconds, 48.06 and 1:12.12.

Entering the far turn, Colonel John got passed by Tale of Ekati on his inside and Cool Coal Man to his outside. But Gomez still had horse and it was just a matter of waiting to launch his bid.

Approaching the quarter pole, Gomez was looking to maneuver around Da' Tara, but that horse floated off the rail then immediately went back to the rail. Gomez had to steady off the heels of Tale of Ekati turning for home.

In upper stretch, Colonel John had plenty of room and he set sail after Da' Tara. He caught that horse inside the eighth pole, but was about to be tackled from the outside by Mambo in Seattle, who had launched a six-wide rally from next-to-last turning for home. It looked like Mambo in Seattle was going to pass Colonel John, but instead the two staged a ding-dong duel in the final sixteenth that went to Colonel John.

Colonel John, a son of Tiznow owned and bred by WinStar Farm, covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.20 and returned $10.20 as the second choice.

“I felt pretty confident when the horse came up beside me, I could see Colonel John dig back in,” Harty said. “The wire looked like it was never coming up.”

Colonel John added the Travers to earlier victories in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and Grade 3 Sham Stakes, both at Santa Anita. He is now 5 for 8 and has earned $1,468,830.

Colonel John will be pointed to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25, but Harty isn't sure whether he will run him before then or just train him up to the race.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch