07/27/2004 11:00PM

Colonial Colony a full-fledged contender

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Five horses were entered Wednesday in the Washington Park Handicap here at Arlington. And for the first time, the name Colonial Colony resonates as more than an afterthought.

Colonial Colony is a 6-year-old Pleasant Colony horse bred and owned by Chris Nolan of Indiana. Thirty starts into his career, Colonial Colony remains eligible for a fourth-level allowance race. He will not be running in one anytime soon.

It had been 16 months since Colonial Colony tasted victory, when, at odds of 62-1, he launched a wide move on the turn of the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 12 at Churchill. He did not let up until he had beaten Southern Image, among the best horses in the country, by a nose.

Was it a fluke? Apparently not. Three weeks later, Colonial Colony was back, this time in New York for the Grade 2 Brooklyn at Belmont. The stretch run of this race began to look like a replay of the Stephen Foster, as Colonial Colony and jockey Rafael Bejarano came charging down the middle of the track. They settled for fourth, but Colonial Colony was beaten only a length to Peace Rules, and the performance stamped the Foster as a legitimate run.

"I probably was just as happy after that race as I was after the Stephen Foster," said trainer Walter Bindner. "It dawned on me that we had a really good horse - a top horse."

Saturday's Washington Park is a Grade 2 with a $350,000 purse, and Colonial Colony fits as well as anyone. The others in the Washington Park, contested at 1 3/16 miles on dirt, are Congrats, The Lady's Groom, Olmodavor, and Eye of the Tiger - a compact but high-quality field.

Bindner was camping with his family in northern Michigan this week. He is trying to squeeze in a couple of days' rest, since he figures Colonial Colony will fully occupy the rest of his year.

"I'm going to stick close to the horse from here on out," Bindner said. "After the last two races, we're looking at it like we could be running in the Breeders' Cup."

That is a lot to chew on, considering Colonial Colony's history. It was here at Arlington that Colonial Colony won his maiden during the summer of 2001, but he needed several tries to knock out his first and second allowance conditions, and it was not until the winter of 2003 that Colonial Colony won the third race of his career. But Bindner had been high on this horse all along. A former jockey who began training in 1974, Bindner winters in New Orleans and spends the rest of the year in Kentucky. Trim, with neat white hair and practical spectacles, Bindner looks as much the part of a math professor as a horse trainer. And indeed, he takes a calculated approach. Bindner, if nothing else, is a realist. He will not push a horse through problems, and he will not rush one into stakes. But that spring, Bindner thought it was time to test Colonial Colony.

And he was right. Colonial Colony was beaten a neck in the Grade 3 National Jockey Club at Hawthorne and was fourth to Mineshaft in the Pimlico Special. But he finished his season with nine consecutive losses. The foray into graded stakes racing seemed temporary.

A strange thing happened, however, this past winter.

"He completely turned the corner," Bindner said. "Not just in the way he races, but in the barn, too. He's even a different color now. He was never healthy as a young horse. You know how horses look when they're doing good. He just never looked well. It's amazing the way he's blossomed. I've never seen anything like it in all my years doing this."

And then there is Colonial Colony's jockey, Bejarano, who took Kentucky racing by storm this year. Bindner, the former jockey, often downplays the significance of riders, but he credits Bejarano with Colonial Colony's narrow victory in the Foster.

"You know, he didn't hit the horse," Bindner said. "The horse was responding for him, and he just kept going. He's a very positive rider. When he came into the paddock for the Foster, he was on a 62-1 shot, and he said, 'Oh, what a beautiful horse. We're going to win this thing.' "

Bejarano is coming to Chicago from Ellis Park to ride Colonial Colony. But bettors won't be getting 62-1 this time. Colonial Colony has made his mark, at least among Midwestern handicappers, and Bindner says he sees the good times going forward.

"We're hanging on to this dream as long as we can," he said.