05/01/2008 12:00AM

Harty a Derby rookie with experience


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With little to do Monday afternoon, trainer Eoin Harty decided to fuel his other passion and go bass fishing at a nearby lake. They were biting, all right.

"I have to figure out what to do with all this fish," he said.

On Saturday, though, he will try to reel in the big one.

Harty trains Colonel John, who comes off a powerful win last month in the Santa Anita Derby and is likely to be the second choice Saturday behind Big Brown in the 134th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Colonel John will mark Harty's first starter in the Derby, but Harty, 45, is far from a Derby rookie. From 1996 through 1999, during his final years as an assistant to Bob Baffert, Harty attended four straight Derbies, two of which - Silver Charm in 1997, and Real Quiet in 1998 - resulted in victories for Baffert.

While Baffert, then a newcomer to the Derby scene, kept everyone entertained with his witticisms, Harty carried out the boss's objectives, which - except for the nose by which Grindstone beat Cavonnier in 1996 - nearly resulted in an unprecedented three straight Derby wins.

Harty - whose first name is pronounced "Owen" - left Baffert at the end of 1999 to work privately for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing. He was entrusted with developing Godolphin's United States-based 2-year-olds. With his first crop for Godolphin - whose horses were listed as being trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who was based in Newmarket, England - Harty trained Street Cry, who in 2000 was second in the Del Mar Futurity and Norfolk Stakes and third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but is now best known as the sire of Street Sense, last year's Derby winner.

In his second crop for Godolphin, Harty won the 2001 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies with Tempera.

Harty still trains for Sheikh Mohammed's other label, Darley Stable, but now operates a public stable. His business, and profile, have been raised exponentially by Colonel John, who came to Harty's barn through a friendship his family developed with Bill and Susan Casner, co-owners with Kenny Troutt of WinStar Farm, which bred and owns Colonel John, a son of Tiznow out of the Turkoman mare Sweet Damsel.

Harty and his wife, Kathy, met the Casners in 1999 at the Dubai World Cup, where Silver Charm was defending his title.

"The Casners are such friendly, easy people," Kathy Harty said. "We got to talking about skiing, and realized they had a home in Vail that's literally a half-dozen houses down the street from one my family has. That year, between Christmas and New Year's, we all spent the holidays in Vail."

The friendship did not develop into a business relationship, though, until last year, when Casner and Troutt, emboldened by the switch to synthetic surfaces in Southern California, where Harty is based, decided to send a handful of horses west.

"Colonel John was the first horse I got, along with two others," Harty said. Last summer at Del Mar, Elliott Walden, the former trainer who now works for WinStar, touted Colonel John as a colt to watch before he ever raced.

"He showed himself as a really nice horse early in his training, even though he was leggy," Walden said this week. "He wasn't one you'd have thought would be among the first to leave the farm and go out, but he went through everything so easily."

Harty liked what he saw, too.

"Every 2-year-old you get, you're wondering - Is this the one?" Harty said. "Just his physique and his natural ability, I thought that if things go the way I think they could, he's certainly capable."

Colonel John has not disappointed. In 6 starts, he has won 4 times and finished second twice. He is 3 for 4 in races around two turns, and has won both his starts this year, both at 1 1/8 miles, a furlong shorter than the Derby. Harty said he believes the Derby distance will be right up Colonel John's alley, and thinks Colonel John's demeanor will be a critical factor in the caldron that is Derby Day.

"That's got to be one of his biggest assets," Harty said. "He's genuine, and he has talent, but he also has a good mind. You see how many come apart - Pulpit, Unbridled's Song. It's hard on them. They'll never go through that again in their career. There's 150,000 screaming fans, and 50,000 of them are stone drunk. It's a lot to overcome."

Harty grew up in Ireland, the son of Eddie Harty, a former steeplechase rider and winner of the 1969 Irish Grand National who is now a bloodstock agent.

"An eighth of a mile out the back gate were the gallops at the Curragh," Harty said. "I went to the races with my dad three days a week. I realized if I wanted to do anything in racing, I'd want to be a trainer."

Although he is worldly beyond the gates of the stable area, with interests ranging from current events to baseball to reruns of "The Simpsons," Harty said that as a youth, he did not apply himself in school. Doh!

"In Ireland, pretty much your life has been predetermined by the age of 17," he said.

Harty, the second of three children, came to the United States at 17 and initially worked in Lexington, Ky., at Crescent Farm. His growing interest in baseball made him a fan of the Yankees, whose hat he now wears every morning.

An interest in music made him a frequent visitor to the late Lexington club JDI, the Jefferson Davis Inn, where bands played cover tunes of current rock and alternative music. "That was my Flock of Seagulls era," Harty said.

The group of friends Harty would hang out with included Amy Gregory, now a publicist at Keeneland.

"He was the first person who told us about U2," Gregory said.

Harty still hadn't found what he was looking for, so he headed west in 1984 to work as the top assistant to another Irish expatriate, trainer John Russell, whom Harty had met at the Keeneland sales. The best horse Harty had with Russell was the Hall of Famer Precisionist, who was transferred to Russell after a failed first attempt at stud. In the summer of 1988 at Del Mar, Precisionist set a one-mile track record.

In 1992, the same year he and Kathy had their only child, Eddie, Harty went to work for Baffert.

"John was winding down," Harty recalled. "One of Bob's exercise riders, Larry Damore, suggested I go to work for Bob."

That fall, Baffert won his first Breeders' Cup race, with the sprinter Thirty Slews at Gulfstream Park.

It wasn't long before Baffert and Harty became regulars at the Derby. In 1996, when he came here with Cavonnier, Harty found the experience, "I'm sure like most, overwhelming," he said.

His previous trips to the Derby made Harty comfortable with the training schedule this past month for Colonel John, and it prepared Harty for the media attention that descended on him this past week.

Unlike Baffert, who preferred to head to Kentucky as soon as the Santa Anita Derby was official, Harty stayed in California until 12 days before the Derby, opting to give Colonel John just one work over this track. Colonel John has raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces - of which Harty and Casner are major proponents - so the Derby will be his first start on dirt.

"I didn't want to do all my training in California because I thought I better cover all my bases," Harty said. "The dirt is a question. It's a legitimate question in terms of how much bravado you want to have. But I feel pretty confident he will be able to handle it."