12/22/2008 12:00AM

Seeking a fighter's instincts


ARCADIA, Calif. - Oscar winner and racehorse owner Joe Pesci, star of such feel-good family flicks as "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas," spent part of last Thanksgiving weekend at Hollywood Park, where he presented the trophy for the Hollywood Derby, won by Court Vision for the partnership of IEAH Stables and the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Ken Troutt.

Casner, suitably impressed with both the trophy and the presenter, was asked to name his favorite Joe Pesci film. Chances were strong that Casner, a straight-arrow model citizen of a Texas businessman, would lean safely toward "Home Alone" or "My Cousin Vinny." So much for stereotypes.

"Oh, it's gotta be 'Casino,'" Casner quickly replied. "When he takes that - what was it, a pencil? - to that guy's neck in the bar. A guy about twice his size. I'll never forget that. And you know what that was? That's what you want in a racehorse."

It was actually a pen, but that wasn't the point. Horse racing requires a tough edge and a take-no-prisoners mentality from horse and rider alike. There is no room between the lines for the polite consideration of feelings, or lack of focus. Horses who are content to run with the herd tend to remain in the herd, no matter what their natural ability provides.

The veil lifted for Court Vision in his final two starts as a 3-year-old, both brisk victories in the Jamaica Handicap and at Hollywood. Now Casner and company are hoping for the same evolution in Colonel John, the leading man of the WinStar racing string. When Santa Anita Park opens Friday for its 72nd season of sport, Colonel John will be taking the field for the $300,000 Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs and he'll have plenty of company. Among the seven entered are a mixed and menacing bag of almost 4-year-olds, including Into Mischief, Georgie Boy, and Bob Black Jack.

Walking around as the winner of the Travers and the Santa Anita Derby usually gets you a pretty good table. Colonel John won them both narrowly, but to read about him, you'd think he stole the silverware. Few generations have been so maligned as the 3-year-olds of 2008, led by its poster boy, Big Brown, whose failure in the Belmont Stakes is remembered with more unforgiving gusto than his victories in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell.

The final nails in the coffin were provided by Raven's Pass, Henrythenavigator, and Conduit, the European 3-year-olds who ran the table in the two most important races of the 2008 Breeders' Cup. Colonel John was one of only two American-trained 3-year-olds to even try the Classic, and he finished sixth, beaten a bit more than two lengths by fourth-place Curlin. If that makes any difference.

It doesn't, at least until Colonel John can unleash a string of fabulously impressive efforts, beginning with the Malibu. If looks could kill, he would be deadly, too, because the son of Tiznow has grown into a grand specimen, with all the breadth and width anyone could want.

"You could say if he ran to his looks he'd be dangerous, but that's not how the game is played," said trainer Eoin Harty one recent morning, as Colonel John circled his Santa Anita shedrow. "I will say, though, that he's been a lot more aggressive out there in the morning, jumping right into his gallops. Maybe the light's come on."

A seven-furlong race seems hardly make or break for a horse with major aspirations. The Malibu, though, is different. Its history, dating back to 1952, is decorated with superior individuals - among them Determine, Round Table, Buckpasser, Damascus, Spectacular Bid, Ferdinand, and Rock Hard Ten - who displayed the versatility to get a job done quickly when it was required. Harty was asked, figuratively, if Colonel John now has the grit to stick a pen in the Malibu's neck if he had to.

"If he's a good horse, he'd better," the trainer replied.

Eclipse ballot goes electronic

The Malibu is the final major event of the 2008 season, which means once it is in the books it is okay to go ahead and submit ballots for the 2008 Eclipse Awards. Say what? Everybody's voted already? Oh well, it sounded good in theory.

The new online Eclipse Award voting system will be a snap for those who live point-and-click lives, and certainly it saved the NTRA on postage (money that was surely plowed right back into the premium awards program). There were a few snags, though, at least from this keyboard. Write-in votes are possible if a name does not appear on a drop-down menu, which came in handy with Starlet Stakes winner Laragh. But never in a million years did I think I would need to write in the name of Zenyatta's trainer, that John S., to place him among my top three picks.

On a personal note, I imposed home rule on the process and declined to vote for any one-shot European invader, no matter how impressive they were in a Breeders' Cup event. They have their Cartier Awards to keep them warm. Even in these lean times, the Eclipse Awards are meant to honor a season of hard work.

So I pointed and clicked and filed my ballot, only to gasp at the thought of potential vote fraud (Florida, Ohio, Blagojevich, whatever). I should have printed a copy, but didn't, and when I attempted to log in again I was greeted with, "You have already submitted a ballot for this event." Okay, maybe it's best to just trust in our institutions. What could go wrong?