07/10/2008 12:00AM

Still room for a run at a title


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Even if he was so inclined, Eoin Harty did not have much time to feel sorry for himself after watching Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John shuffle home sixth in the Kentucky Derby, some 14 lengths behind Big Brown. By the time Harty got back to the barn, his attention was drawn to the crowd gathered across the way at the mouth of the Larry Jones shed row, where Jones and his crew were being consoled by family and friends after the death of the Derby runner-up, Eight Belles.

Harty quietly approached Jones. They exchanged a few words, and then Harty turned and walked back to his horse in the company of his father, the former steeplechase rider Eddie Harty.

"What can you say?" Harty said with a shrug. "It's the worst possible thing that could happen. All you can say as how sorry you are. Sometimes, you should just be happy when they come back in one piece."

To Harty's relief, Colonel John survived the Derby safe and sound, and probably could have wheeled right back against Big Brown in the Belmont Stakes. But the Derby, being the Derby, was the overarching target of the spring for Harty and the colt's WinStar Farm ownership. Once that dream had died, a new one had to be spun from what remained of the 2008 season.

So it begins on Saturday at Hollywood Park, when Colonel John returns in the Swaps Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. His sire, Tiznow, won the Swaps in 2000 after missing the entire Triple Crown experience - not necessarily a bad thing - then later added the Super Derby, the Goodwood and the Breeders' Cup Classic to be Horse of the Year.

"He looks a little bigger and stronger now, but he's always been so mature," Harty said of Colonel John. "We chose just the two races before the Derby because he's such a smart horse. I didn't think he'd benefit that much from a bunch of races, either physically or mentally. He had a terrible trip in the Derby, but I don't have any doubt that the best horse won."

Harty and others in possession of a good 3-year-old are allowed to believe that Big Brown does not yet have the division championship wrapped up, although history indicates that it's pretty close to a sure thing.

Since year-end championships began in 1936, the 3-year-old male title has gone to 62 horses who won at least one of the Triple Crown races. That leaves 10 champs who did not win either the Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes.

The most recent have been Tiznow, as noted, along with those grand grays Skip Away and Holy Bull. The others are Slew o' Gold, Wajima, Key to the Mint, Kelso, Fighting Step, By Jimminy, and Stagehand.

Seven of those 10 benefited from the chaos of three different Triple Crown race winners. The other three were somehow impressive enough to win the title in the face of a colt who won two of the three Triple Crown events, which is exactly what this year's crop faces if any of them is to displace Big Brown.

In 1944, Calumet Farm's Pensive won the Derby and the Preakness, then lost the Belmont by only a half- length. Had he wrapped it up right there, Pensive probably would have won the title with ease. But the colt ran seven more times and lost all seven, often without much of a fight, then retired with a bad tendon. By Jimminy, who did not run in any of the Triple Crown events, took advantage of Pensive's retreat by winning 6 of his last 7 starts, including the Travers and the American Derby.

Through the first six months of 1972, there was no doubt that Riva Ridge was the finest 3-year-old in the land. He won the Hibiscus, the Blue Grass, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont (by seven). He even traveled across the country to win the Hollywood Derby on July 1 while carrying 129 pounds. Come fall, though, Riva Ridge finished behind fellow 3-year-old Key to the Mint in two key New York races against older horses, and that was all it took to knock him off his pedestal.

Tabasco Cat was certainly the most notorious racehorse of 1994. He won both the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont for trainer Wayne Lukas, and later finished a close second to Concern in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He was also the colt who collided one morning with Wayne's son Jeff, causing a severe brain injury that finished Jeff's budding career as a trainer in his own right. As good as he was, Tabasco Cat could not match the record of Holy Bull, who recovered from his 12th-place finish in the '94 Derby to win the Met Mile, the Dwyer, the Haskell, the Travers, and the Woodward.

Colonel John will need to lay down a similar case for the rest of the season if he is to have any chance of bumping Big Brown. He will get his chance, since Harty plans a run at the Travers Stakes if all goes well in the Swaps, and then on to races like the Goodwood and the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in the fall. It worked for the father, so why not the son?