08/20/2008 12:00AM

Harty still confident in his Colonel


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The 9-2 odds Colonel John went off at in the Kentucky Derby represented the longest price of his career. Those who have not given up on him should get better odds than that in Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

Many handicappers will be wondering what to make of Colonel John after he finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby - his one and only start on dirt - and a disappointing third in the four-horse Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Trainer Eoin Harty believes Colonel John had legitimate excuses in both those races and thinks his horse is deserving of a shot in Saratoga's biggest race.

Colonel John drew post 2 and was made 8-1 on the morning line of the New York Racing Association's oddsmaker, Eric Donovan.

"I feel my horse is going to run his race, and if he gets a clean trip we'll get a genuine assessment of just how good he is," Harty said Wednesday morning, several hours before Colonel John was to arrive from Southern California with fellow Travers starter Tres Borrachos.

Victories in the Sham Stakes and Santa Anita Derby made Colonel John the undisputed leader of the Southern California 3-year-old division heading into the Kentucky Derby. The biggest question surrounding Colonel John entering the Derby was whether he could handle regular dirt. All of his previous races had been run on synthetic surfaces.

A scintillating five-furlong workout in 57.60 seconds over the Churchill Downs main track six days before the Derby had many believing the dirt was a non-factor. Though Colonel John finished sixth in the Derby, Harty believes the start of the race, not the surface was the biggest issue.

Bob Black Jack, in post 13, took a left-hand turn out of the gate, which affected many horses. Colonel John, who broke from post 10, was 16th coming under the wire the first time. He did make a long, sustained bid down the backside, but had to go extremely wide at the quarter pole. He had nothing left for the stretch and was beaten 14 1/4 lengths by Big Brown.

"I thought my horse when he finally got a chance to settle, he made a big move," Harty said. "But it was just too much for him, and he flattened out there at the top of the stretch, and that was it."

Following the Derby, Colonel John was sent to owner Bill Casner's WinStar Farm in Lexington, Ky., for three weeks, before returning to Harty's Santa Anita barn in late May.

Colonel John was sent off the 4-5 favorite in the July 12 Swaps, a race that drew only four horses. Harty believes there were several factors why Colonel John finished third behind Tres Borrachos.

Harty said when Tyler Baze elected to take Tres Borrachos off the pace, that left Two Step Salsa as the lone speed. Jockey Garrett Gomez, fearing that Two Step Salsa would steal the race, put Colonel John right off the hip of that horse. When the real running started, Colonel John had to go three wide while Tres Borrachos cut the corner and made a winning move along the rail. Colonel John was outfinished by Two Step Salsa for second.

"He's got a real good turn of foot, and he didn't get to use it that day," Harty said. "Another contributing factor was the weight. I was giving away 10 pounds to the winner and six pounds to the second horse. All things considered, I went wide and the winner cut the turn, so it wasn't really as bad as it looked. I was disappointed initially, but when cooler heads prevailed we felt the horse deserved a second chance."

Harty elected to keep Colonel John in Southern California to train over the synthetic surface at Del Mar. He said he would have shipped the horse in a week earlier, but there was no flight. Colonel John has breezed five times at Del Mar, including a five-furlong move in 1:00.60 on Monday.

"I think he's probably trained better for this race than any race of his life," Harty said. "He knows he's getting ready to do something, and he's ready to do it."

If he does it successfully, his loyal followers figure to be handsomely rewarded.