INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- It took two minutes for Colonel John's reputation to be dented by a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby on May 3. He entered the race as California's best hope, and walked off the track humiliated by runaway winner Big Brown.
Trainer Eoin Harty shrugged off the defeat as best he could, and launched a plan geared toward the second half of the year. He will spend the next four months attempting to prove that Colonel John is better than his Kentucky Derby performance.
The first chance will occur in Saturday's $350,000 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, Colonel John's first start since the Kentucky Derby. If Colonel John wins, he is likely to head to the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 23 and perhaps a rematch with Big Brown, who later won the Preakness Stakes and was pulled up in the Belmont Stakes.
"If he shows up 100 percent and I'm 100 percent, I'd love to have a rematch with him," Harty said.
The Kentucky Derby was not even official when Harty wished he could rewind time a few minutes. "Let's run that again," he thought. Harty watched as Colonel John was steadied at the start, and made a wide move around the final turn before flattening out in the final furlong. Colonel John finished 14 1/4 lengths behind Big Brown.
Unfortunately for Harty and Colonel John's owner, WinStar Farms, there was enough time to watch Big Brown hit the finish and then look back through the field for Colonel John.
"I think any chance I had was compromised at the gate," Harty said. "You have to be lucky.
"I thought the way he was moving [on the turn] he would come up and hit the board. He seemed to take a bad step or shy away from something and that knocked him off stride. That was it."
Harty said that no blame was thrown around for Colonel John's loss in the Derby.
"There was no second-guessing, no finger pointing, and no overanalyzing," he said. "I'm fortunate to train for the WinStar people. They were gracious in defeat. They said, 'Let's go to the bar and get a drink.' "
Within days, the Swaps became an immediate goal. The Grade 2 race, run over 1 1/8 miles, is essentially the last major main-track stakes for 3-year-olds in California before the division's emphasis switches to turf for the second half of the year.
This year, the Breeders' Cup Classic will be run during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita in October, and Colonel John has thrived on Santa Anita's synthetic surface. He won two stakes there earlier this year - the Grade 3 Sham Stakes and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 5. The win in the Santa Anita Derby, in which Colonel John overcame traffic on the final turn to win by a half-length, clinched his participation in the Kentucky Derby.
After the Kentucky Derby, Harty decided to point Colonel John for the Swaps.
"I laid out an uninterrupted training pattern and he hasn't missed a mark yet," he said. "I believe he's fit and ready."
In the Swaps, Colonel John will be ridden by Garrett Gomez, who replaces Kentucky Derby rider Corey Nakatani. Gomez was aboard Colonel John for the Sham Stakes, when Nakatani was injured.
"The owners have had a lot of luck with Gomez," Harty said. "It's not a knock on Corey. It was an owner's call."
Colonel John is likely to leave California in August and September and race on dirt, with a start in the Super Derby on dirt at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 20 perhaps to follow the Travers.
The Travers would be Colonel John's second career start on dirt. In Colonel John's 7 starts, his 4 wins have been on California's synthetic tracks. The Kentucky Derby was his first start on dirt.
"Prior to the Derby, he seemed to train well on a conventional racetrack" at Churchill Downs, Harty said. "If he runs the way I think he will, I'll take him to Saratoga for the Travers."
That may mean a start against Big Brown, whose reputation was dented by the loss in the Belmont Stakes. Harty knows that Colonel John must prove he can compete with Big Brown.
"I think Big Brown is a phenomenal horse," he said. "I'm not sure I could have beaten him with a clear shot on Derby Day."
He remains very willing to try.