Dear John - by Dan Liebman

One night during the 2007 Keeneland November sale, Eoin Harty was enjoying a leisurely dinner when the topic turned to horses, in particular those in his Southern California stable.
The trainer got a twinkle in his eye when he began to speak about a colt that had impressively broken his maiden the month before, in his second start, and was preparing for his first stakes outing.

“He has the look of a Derby horse,” Harty said matter-of-factly. “I see the things in him that I saw in the others we took to Louisville.”

The “we” referred to the past, when Harty was an assistant to Bob Baffert, who burst on the Derby scene and etched his name in the history books with two victories and a close second in consecutive years. They finished second in 1996 with Cavonnier, who was beaten just a nose by Grindstone, and then won the Run for the Roses in 1997 and 1998 with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, respectively. (Baffert won another Derby, in 2002 with War Emblem, after Harty had struck out on his own.)

Many a trainer has a 2-year-old he thinks has what it takes to get to Louisville, Ky., for the world’s greatest race on the first Saturday each May. But the way is lined with roadblocks, pitfalls, injuries, and, of course, the fact many horses prove to simply not be good enough.

There also is something some encounter that is every bit as contagious as the flu, but for which there is no vaccine. They call it Derby fever.

Harty doesn’t have Derby fever. From his experiences with Baffert, Harty knows what it takes to get to the Derby, and six months ago he thought he had a colt that possessed those special qualities.

Bred and owned by WinStar Farm, the Tiznow colt out of the Turkoman mare Sweet Damsel won that stakes last November, ironically named the Real Quiet. At 1 1⁄16 miles, it was his first time around two turns, and the colt showed he was bred for distance and would have no trouble getting a route of ground.

The final start in his juvenile campaign came in late December in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I), producing a second-place finish.

In four starts as a 2-year-old, he had two wins and two seconds, and in January was assigned 116 pounds by the handicappers who compile the Experimental Free Handicap. Published annually by The Jockey Club since 1935, the Experimental is a weight assignment based on juvenile accomplishments for a hypothetical race at 1 1⁄16 miles on dirt. Champion War Pass received top weight of 127 pounds.

At his Santa Anita base, Harty mapped out a plan that would have his colt make only two starts prior to the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). That is contrary to what his former boss did in the ’90s—Cavonnier had four previous starts at 3; Silver Charm and Real Quiet each had three—but a horseman has to know his horse, and Harty believes he does.

In the March 1 Sham Stakes (gr. III), the colt’s first start at nine furlongs, he hung closer to the pace, had to duel for the first time, and won by a half-length. In the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) five weeks later, Harty looked on as his charge appeared beaten at the quarter pole. But he found that something extra good horses need to find sometimes, getting in stride late to again post a half-length victory.

The question Harty is asked most is whether his colt, who has only started on synthetic surfaces, can win on dirt. Well, his sire won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) twice, once at Churchill. His broodmare sire was represented last year by Hard Spun, who ran second in the Derby.

Like Harty, this writer has a twinkle in his eye when thinking about Colonel John.

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