11/19/2007 1:00AM

Colonel John's got 'em thinking

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - On the morning of Oct. 18, 2001, Eoin Harty and a gathering of Santa Anita horsemen watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as trainer Jay Robbins attempted to orchestrate a one-mile work for reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow, in preparation for his defense of his title in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park one week hence.

It was not a pretty sight.

"I can still vividly see that last work," Harty recalled not long ago. "It seemed like it took forever. Chris McCarron was on him. He tried to take him to the gate. They put the blinkers on him. He tried to get the pony to lead him off. He tried the stick. Then, when he gave up, the horse trotted off and worked."

Worked, yes, but from the half-mile pole to the half-mile pole, in an unorthodox yet official 1:35.60 that set Tiznow up perfectly for the Classic and removed what little stomach lining Robbins had left.

"Then he not only goes and not only wins it," Harty added, "but wins probably one of the greatest races I've ever seen."

This is high praise. Harty's standards for great racing can only be described as lofty. He was 6 when his father, Eddie Harty, won the 1969 Grand National at Aintree aboard Highland Wedding. Then in his 30s, as chief assistant to Bob Baffert, Harty played a role in two dramatic victories in the Kentucky Derby, by Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

Even as a spectator for Tiznow's wafer-thin Classic victory over the European Horse of the Year Sakhee, Harty could have been understandably jaded. Just hours before, making his first national splash as a head trainer, Harty had saddled Tempera and Imperial Gesture to finish one-two in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. The man gets to call that a great race no matter what.

Still, a horse like Tiznow tends to stamp the brain. For two solid years, Harty and his California colleagues watched Robbins work wonders with the big, tempestuous colt, handling him with the touch of a diamond cutter, nursing him through ailments that might have baffled lesser horsemen. As a racehorse, Tiznow embodied Hemingway's description of his own writing: "Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges." Through it all, Robbins never let the colt lose touch with his inner Man o' War.

It is fitting, given the twists of history, that Harty would now be handling a son of Tiznow who appears to have classic colt stamped all over his handsome bay frame. Colonel John was bred and is owned by Bill and Susan Casner's WinStar Farm, the home of Tiznow, and he was impressive enough winning the 1 1/16-mile Real Quiet Stakes last Sunday at Hollywood Park that neither the size of the purse nor the future accomplishments of his opposition will ever be held against him.

In fact, Colonel John's three-length victory under Corey Nakatani was a textbook piece of education under fire. After the race, Harty shared the plan.

"I told Corey whatever you do, give him a chance to learn something," Harty said. "If he gets beat, it'll be my fault. Early on in the race he was taking dirt - he had his head in the air - but pretty much by the time he hit the three-quarter pole he'd settled down. Only then I thought he might have a little too much to do. But when he started running."

Harty trailed off, letting others complete the thought. After splitting horses without missing a beat, Colonel John let his long legs reach and pull on past the finish line and around the clubhouse turn, disappearing into a chilly late afternoon mist.

"Bill, did you see him gallop out?" beamed Elliott Walden, who supervised a young Colonel John back at WinStar.

"Yes," Casner said, gripping his binoculars. "He's still going."

Casner gave all the credit to his wife, Susan, for picking Colonel John's dam out of the crowd at the 2001 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Sweet Damsel, a daughter of Turkoman, was 6 at the time and in foal to Touch Gold.

"I just kept watching this mare," Susan said. "She had such fire. She was beautiful and black - I called her Black Beauty for the longest time - but we didn't know anything about her."

Sweet Damsel, consigned by Three Chimneys, brought a final bid of $64,000, falling short of her $70,000 reserve. When the smoke cleared from the sale, the Casners got her for $65,000 privately. In 2004, Sweet Damsel went to Tiznow, WinStar's lead stallion, and gave them Colonel John.

"She's a big, pretty mare, and he's a big, pretty stallion," Bill Casner said. "It's stamina on stamina. And the way this colt has turned out, maybe it was meant to be."

Colonel John has won 2 of 3 starts, beginning with his second at Del Mar, and is rising cleanly to the head of the West Coast class. Harty was asked, by someone clearly not paying attention, when he would begin to plot Colonel John's future, counting backwards from the first Saturday in May.

"I've already done that," he said, "starting at Del Mar."

Then he laughed at the sound of his own hubris.

"You hate to say something like that," Harty said, "but you've got to dream."

Blame it on Colonel John.