09/02/2009 11:00PM

Harty, Colonel John endure ups, downs


DEL MAR, Calif. - This time last year, the Eoin Harty stable won the Travers by a nose with Colonel John, lost the Pacific Classic by a neck with Well Armed, and threw a scare into Curlin when Past the Point led inside the eighth pole of the Woodward Stakes and surrendered only in the final 50 yards.

This time this year, Well Armed is on Bill and Susan Casner's family ranch in Texas recovering from ankle surgery, Colonel John is carrying the torch in the Pacific Classic field, and if Past the Point thought the Woodward would be easier this time around without Curlin, he simply hasn't been paying attention.

The appearance on Saturday of Rachel Alexandra against older males in the nine-furlong Woodward will suck the air out of weekend in terms of any national attention, which is too bad, but to be expected. The $1 million Pacific Classic on Sunday has Colonel John against Santa Anita Handicap winner Einstein and Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip - which is about all you can ask for - while most of the best sprinters in the country, including California-based Zensational, run in either the Forego at Saratoga on Saturday or the Pat O'Brien at Del Mar on Sunday.

Past the Point, owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable, is like the veteran club fighter who once went 15 rounds with Ali and lived to tell the tale. Nothing he has done before or since gives him the right to shock the socks off Rachel, unless you believe that his comeback win at seven furlongs on Aug. 6 at Saratoga mirrors his nine-furlong Saratoga allowance score last year just before rattling Curlin's cage.

"He really does relish Saratoga," said Harty, who has been bouncing back and forth between New York and Del Mar this summer. "He's a horse with a real personality and likes to know what's going on."

Past the Point, a son of Indian Charlie, is stabled at the training facility still referred to as Greentree but now owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Past the Point is able to train over Greentree's Polytrack surface or the dirt surface across the street at Saratoga. Brian Ainge is Harty's assistant on the Saratoga scene.

"His stall looks over the Greentree track," Harty noted. "We turn him out in a pen in the morning before he trains, then afterwards as well. He eats all the grass he wants. He's in heaven."

Earlier this year, Past the Point was training alongside Colonel John in California, but for different targets. After running third in the San Carlos Handicap, Past the Point stepped aside to let Colonel John take the spotlight in the March 7 Santa Anita Handicap.

Then, early on the morning of the Handicap, groom Martin Rodriguez told Harty that something wasn't quite right with Colonel John.

"He'd left a little bit of grain, but he didn't have a temperature, so I thought maybe he got wound up by something that happened in the night," Harty recalled. "Martin was insistent, though. When we checked his temperature again, around eight o'clock, it was 101 and four-fifths. Still, you can get a high normal up around there."

It was high enough, though, to scratch Colonel John from the Handicap - won later that afternoon by Einstein - and Harty went into precautionary mode. As it turned out, the trainer was dealing with a pleural pneumonia, a serious infection involving the lungs. Colonel John was dispatched to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, about 125 miles to the north, for treatment and further diagnostics. When he returned to Santa Anita some two weeks later, the immediate danger had passed, but the fight had taken its toll.

"He was pretty knocked out," Harty said. "Basically, we had to start from scratch. You would never want to put them under any stress right away. And he was sore as a boil for quite awhile, which had to be from some muscle damage from the antibiotics. There were many times I thought he might never make it back, but then there was a turning point, and he started moving more comfortably again."

Although Colonel John had worked like a champ through July at Santa Anita and then early at the Del Mar meet, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that Harty and the Casners led him over for the Wickerr Stakes on July 31. When he won impressively, their sighs of relief could be heard at the seashore. As a bonus, the fact that the race marked Colonel John's first taste of grass opened new horizons.

Then someone whispered "all glory is fleeting," and two days later Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed returned for Harty and the Casners in the San Diego Handicap and finished an inglorious last of eight runners. A couple of days later, Well Armed's ankle injury was confirmed and surgery performed, at which point Colonel John was informed not to make any plans beyond the Pacific Classic. On Sunday, he will attempt to become the first Travers winner to take Del Mar's most important race.

"It's pretty amazing he's been able to come back to such good form," Harty said of Colonel John. "I have to give his groom a lot of credit. Martin is a man of few words and he knows the horse inside out. He will tell you if he's not happy with him and he hasn't said he's not."