Turns out that wasn't an illusion earlier this year when Colonel John seemed to catch another gear just as the wire was approaching in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. The rest of the field looked to be in deep water and the muscular bay son of Tiznow was skipping along on the surface as if he had just entered the fray. His margin of victory that day was only a half-length, but it was the way he did it that was so impressive.
That's why I thought the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby would be right up Colonel John's alley. There was some skepticism because it didn't appear to be a very strong group of 3-year-olds in California prepping for the Classics, and the horse he caught in the final sixteenth of a mile, Bob Black Jack, was a stretching-out sprinter. Nevertheless, I thought Colonel John had what it took to become the 134th winner of the Run for the Roses.
Big Brown ran Colonel John and everyone else off the track that first Saturday in May. It was no contest, really, especially when you consider how much ground Big Brown lost. Colonel John had a nightmare trip, getting virtually eliminated right after the start, when he was pinched back and steadied, then raced into a wall of flying dirt down the stretch the first time. Midway down the backstretch, Colonel John put in a strong run from 16th in the 20-horse field to get as close sixth, but he had nothing left for the final quarter mile.
The team of WinStar Farm and trainer Eoin Harty went back to the drawing board after Colonel John's disappointing sixth-place result in Kentucky, bringing him back two months later in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park (he finished a close third in a four-horse field) but circling Aug. 23 on the calendar as THE day to seek redemption in the 139th running of the Travers. For despite winning four of his first six races, being a Grade 1 winner, and going into the Kentucky Derby as the second betting choice, Colonel John was still carrying that dreaded new moniker: Synthetic Horse. He had yet to win on a racetrack made of real dirt.
Outside of Churchill Downs, no dirt is more hallowed than that which covers the main track oval at Saratoga racetrack in upstate New York. But Harty kept Colonel John in California almost up to the last minute, working him like clockwork every six or seven days on Del Mar's Polytrack. Garrett Gomez, racing's current “go to” big race jockey, would travel east for the mount after replacing Corey Nakatani in the Swaps following the disastrous Kentucky Derby run.
In the crowded, 12-horse Travers field, Gomez didn't get the smoothest of trips, either. Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara led for the first mile of the mile and a quarter “Midsummer Derby,” with Gomez and Colonel tracking him all the way. At the top of the stretch, Colonel John was ready to take off, but Gomez was in tight and had to angle out sharply to avoid clipping the heels of Tale of Ekati to his inside and Da' Tara, who was directly in front of him. Once clear, Colonel John took dead aim at Da' Tara and put that stubborn rival away. But quickly joining the fray after rallying around horses on the turn for home was Mambo in Seattle, a late-developing Kingmambo colt who ran on Derby day at Churchill Downs, finishing second in an entry-level allowance race. He breezed through his allowance conditions after that and won a restricted stakes at Saratoga in late July, his first-added money effort. Trainer Neil Howard, who is always dangerous with a loaded gun, had Mambo in Seattle ready for the race of his life, and the colt did everything but win the Travers.
In fact, jockey Robbiy Albarado thought he'd won the race, waving his whip in celebration at the wire, and ESPN commentators took the bait, interviewing him as the apparent winner as he jogged back to have his picture taken. But the bob of the head went to Colonel John, whose margin of victory could be measured in millimeters.
The Travers is the second most coveted race for a 3-year-old colt after the Kentucky Derby – at least among breeders. The victory, though the margin could not have been narrower, was huge for the stallion potential of Colonel John, who threw the synthetic monkey off his powerful shoulders. The result also sets up the potential for a most interesting Breeders' Cup Classic on Santa Anita's new Pro-Ride synthetic surface, if (and it's a big if) Big Brown shows up. Right now, the connections of Big Brown say that's where they are heading after the son of Boundary preps in a specially created turf race at Monmouth Park next month.
As for Mambo in Seattle, he is a colt of great talent who was unlucky to lose. He'll have his chance at Grade 1 glory down the road, and will be to a force later this year and in 2009 for co-owners Will Farish and Mrs. William Kilroy. His pedigree (Kingmambo out of Weekend in Seattle, by Seattle Slew) assures that he will have every opportunity at stud when his racing days are over.
Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report
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