04/28/2008 11:00PM

Living up to his namesake

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Geider will be in good company if his namesake, Colonel John, comes through Saturday in the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby. In recent years there has been a discernable trend. Smarty Jones was the childhood nickname of the owner. Giacomo honored the son of the owner's friend. And while Barbaro was named for a dog, it was a real good dog.

Funny thing is, though, if anything ever was going to be named for Geider, it was more likely to be a freshly paved street or an electrical grid located somewhere in the heart of Baghdad.

On the day Sweet Damsel foaled her first son of Tiznow at WinStar Farm - it was March 4, 2005 - Lt. Col. John Geider could be found in the U.S. fortress known as the Green Zone, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His job description boggles the sheltered civilian mind, so it's probably best that he jump in here to pick up the story:

"It was not a direct combat role, it was a support role," Geider explained from his Dallas home earlier in the week. "I was the chief of intelligence, a subject-matter expert on the theater - the hostile forces, the tribes - providing the local sorts of color that we needed to understand in order to efficiently rebuild the infrastructure."

Bill Casner, who owns WinStar Farm with Kenny Troutt, describes Geider as having a "special skill set." No kidding. In 28 years of service, Geider, 52, spent most of it as an intelligence officer, gathering data, probing potential threats, and generally surveilling hot cells of determined bad guys, which sometimes took him to places he wouldn't mention if he could.

In naming their prize colt after Geider, Bill and Susan Casner have tied him indelibly to the memory of their oldest daughter, Karri, who was one of 202 victims of the terrorist bombing of a Bali nightclub on Oct. 12, 2002.

The Casners and Geider are understandably reluctant to cover that terrible ground. It is clear, however, that Geider's friendship was important during that time, and attaching his name to a promising young colt was a way to honor that friendship.

"The whole family exhibited astounding courage under very, very tragic conditions," Geider said. "To stand up to that kind of loss and still be able to move on - as far as I'm concerned, the Casners have literally set the standard on how do that, as best you can."

That standard was fortified last month when Colonel John won the Santa Anita Derby, on the day after what should have been Karri Casner's 29th birthday.

"She loved the races, and she was certainly there that day," Bill Casner said. "In fact, I'm convinced she reached down and lifted Corey Nakatani just a little - just enough to get Colonel John there first."

While Bill Casner brings a lifetime of horsemanship to the WinStar operation, Geider acquired his taste for racing the old-fashioned way - through his grandmother.

"She lived to be 102, and she was the most inveterate Pat Day fan that ever lived," Geider said. "She'd go to the old Arlington Park, before it burned down, and wager like a maniac on Pat through his whole career. When I finally got to meet Pat, it was like meeting a giant - the greatest thing ever."

Geider's military resume was a neat fit for the position of security manager for Excel, the telecommunications company developed by Troutt and Casner into a billion-dollar enterprise. After Excel was taken public and then sold, Geider was retained by Troutt as his personal assistant, which means the colonel has had a front-row seat at the rise of WinStar Farm in the Thoroughbred firmament.

Then came the invasion of Iraq. Geider, still on reserve status at the time, correctly predicted that the Army had a job in mind for an experienced, multilingual intelligence officer.

"When I arrived there, in December 2004, the country at least in the north and the west was still very volatile," Geider said. "If you remember, that was not long after the Marine Corps had the Fallujah fight and the significant combat out in Anbar. Even in the Green Zone, there was pretty regular combat activity at the gates, and my office was about 400 yards from one of those gates.

"I spent every day I was in Baghdad talking with my interpreters, who were predominantly Iraqi females," Geider went on. "Saddam educated his women, so they had all gone to college and were very good English speakers. Fortunately, I'm a quick study, so they were able to help me learn a lot in a very short time. And I was able to pick up enough Arabic to convince people I was thinking about them. But conditions were absolutely brutal on our Iraqi subcontractors, trying to get their lives and their economy established.

"Of course, moving anywhere in the country was always hazardous," Geider added. "When I traveled to bases in the north, I tried to do it by helicopter - expeditiously and in the dark."

Geider had not laid eyes on Colonel John until this week. He had gathered reports, however, solid intel from sources like WinStar vice president Elliott Walden, who trained Belmont winner Victory Gallop, and Eoin Harty, who trains Colonel John.

"I will leave the psychoanalysis to Bill, Elliott, and Eoin," Geider said. "But Colonel John seems to be level-headed, extraordinarily calm, and good-natured, which has got to be to his advantage."

And don't forget well named.