04/07/2008 11:00PM

Harty brings one of his own

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Eoin Harty is a reasonable man. He doesn't ask for much. All he really wanted from Colonel John last Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby was a good effort that could translate into an even better one at Churchill Downs on May 3. Then the chips could fall.

And so, Harty's wish list was simple. If it were at all possible, the trainer wanted to see his colt kept in the clear for as much of the 1 1/8 miles as could be managed. He certainly did not want to see Colonel John dropping well off the pace or shuffled back. At the end of the day, what he wanted most of all was that Colonel John not be subjected to an all-out, gut-busting effort that might blow any Kentucky Derby dreams out of the water.

He might as well have included world peace and a cure for cancer, for all the good it would have done.

As happens so many times in the fluid unfolding of a horse race, jockey Corey Nakatani had to fight the battle rather than worry about the strategy. At one point on the backstretch, as Coast Guard and Bob Black Jack lobbed along on a modest pace that included a first half in 47.57 seconds, Colonel John found himself far back and surrounded. Then, when the field began to spread and stagger, and Colonel John saw daylight, Nakatani began riding as if the Santa Anita Derby was on the line, which it was.

By this time, as the final furlong and a half transpired, the WinStar Farm crowd in the Colonel John box was in full hysteria. Susan Casner's knees were buckling. Bill Casner was popping veins. Elliott Walden was having Victory Gallop flashbacks, and Harty was gnawing on the iron railing, cursing his apparent fate.

One by one the closers fired and stalled, unable to penetrate the fast final quarter being run by the resilient Bob Black Jack. Only Colonel John among them kept on coming, even while shying twice from Nakatani's fierce left-handed stick, before a powerful piece of hand-riding right at the end inspired the colt to swallow the leader. The margin was a half-length, the time was 1:48.16, and Harty's blood pressure was 140 over 95.

"That was a heart-stopper," proclaimed Bill Casner as he bolted toward the track.

"I just hope he didn't do too much," said Harty.

As he said it, Harty somehow managed to look both ecstatic and chagrined. The best trainers tend to cultivate this knack, especially when in pursuit of a goal such as the Kentucky Derby, while applying F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence as "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Harty is a 45-year-old native Irishman, deep-sea angler, and "Simpsons" devotee who takes nothing for granted. Charged with the development of a talent such as Colonel John's, he has walked a fine line, unpeeling layers of maturity and still winning races - no easy task. Early in the process, Colonel John acted like he was being paid by the hour.

"I don't mind a horse who's laid back," Harty said. "He was taking it to extremes. I was worried he might never get the idea."

There are trainers in such circumstances who will immediately strap on the blinkers, jack up the irons, and take steps to impress a young, reluctant warrior with the seriousness of the situation. With Colonel John, Harty kept his cool, and let himself be content with incremental progress. A faster work without urging. A bit more growl at feed time. A little more intensity banging around the blue volleyball dangling in his stall. By the time Colonel John won the Sham Stakes in early March, the evolutionary process was well under way.

So far, Harty has been satisfied with the way Colonel John survived the Santa Anita Derby. He now moves on to Louisville with Colonel John to saddle his first Kentucky Derby starter. His rookie status, though, is only a technicality. Harty was at Bob Baffert's side through three remarkable Derby campaigns in 1996, 1997, and 1998. And were it not for the tip of Grindstone's nose, they would have won all three with gallant runner-up Cavonnier, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, preceding the victories of Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

"Cavonnier did what a lot of 3-year-olds do at this time of year," Harty recalled. "They just really jump forward, and he really trained well leading up to the Santa Anita Derby. That's when Bob came up with his famous line, walking out of the paddock that day. 'If this horse runs big here we're closing up shop here and moving to Kentucky for the week!' And he was a man of his word.

"We were like the Beverly Hillbillies, back there at Churchill Downs," Harty went on. "Starry-eyed and full of wonder, walking the backstretch and seeing the twin spires in the distance. I remember how I felt walking over with Silver Charm. Much as I tried, I didn't get the same feeling as I did the first time with Cavonnier, and it's never been the same since."

Then again, Harty never walked over with a horse running in his name, with his son Eddie by his side, which he will do if the stars properly align come May 3 for Colonel John.