Colonel John charges his way to Kentucky

Times Staff Writer

The West Coast will be sending a strong contender to the Kentucky Derby in Colonel John, who picked up an army of supporters after an impressive, hard-charging victory in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday in front of 50,358 in Arcadia.

“This is a very special horse,” said co-owner Bill Casner shortly after Colonel John, fourth going into the stretch, reeled in Bob Black Jack to win by half a length. Coast Guard, a 19-1 shot, finished third.

Colonel John, a son of Tiznow, also provided jockey Corey Nakatani with his first Santa Anita Derby victory in 13 tries. And despite all his success in Southern California, Nakatani is 0 for 13 in the Kentucky Derby.

“To be going to the Kentucky Derby on a legitimate contender is a great feeling,” he said.


Yankee Bravo, who went off at odds of 9-2, and El Gato Malo, the 9-5 favorite, finished fourth and fifth, respectively, ending their bids to go to Kentucky and run the first Saturday in May.

Bob Black Jack, a 6-1 choice, will also forgo a trip to Louisville, despite the good showing.

“The horse ran unbelievable, but that’s a heartbreaker,” trainer James Kasparoff said. “We were home, I thought. Then right at the end I saw Colonel John and I said, ‘Oh, no, here comes Colonel John.’ ”

Kasparoff’s brother Tim, who owns the horse with Ken Harmon, said, “We wouldn’t go to the Kentucky Derby unless we thought we could win.”

Probably a moot point, though. The $150,000 money for second is not likely to give Bob Black Jack enough graded-stakes earnings to qualify.

“This was our Kentucky Derby,” Tim Kasparoff said.

Meanwhile, Colonel John’s trainer, Eoin Harty, a 45-year-Irishman who came to the U.S. as a 17-year-old, is known for his calm demeanor. But he was a bit emotional after the victory in the 71st running of the Santa Anita Derby, a win that was worth $450,000.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet, but it feels like I won the million-dollar St. Patrick’s Day horseshoe toss,” he said.


Harty said Colonel John will have two workouts at Santa Anita before heading for Louisville 10 to 12 days before the Kentucky Derby.

He’ll have only one workout on Churchill Downs’ dirt track after running only on synthetic surfaces in his six races. He now has four firsts and two seconds in those six races, including a half-a-length victory over El Gato Malo in the Sham Stakes on March 8.

Asked if going from synthetic surfaces to dirt would have an effect on his horse, Harty said he didn’t think so.

“Good horses can run on any surface,” he said. He pointed out that was the case with Tiznow, who in 2000 and 2001 became the only two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.


Casner, who with partner Kenny Troutt has mostly raced in Kentucky under the WinStar Farms banner, offered an unsolicited endorsement of synthetic surfaces.

“What they’ve done here in California, with the mandate to go to synthetic surfaces, is the reason we brought some of our business out West,” he said. “Synthetic surfaces are the wave of the future. The key is young horses are remaining sound.”

Colonel John, the second choice in the wagering at odds of 5-2, was clocked in 1:48.16 for 1 1/8 miles and paid $7.20, $4 and $3.20. Bob Black Jack, ridden by Richard Migliore, returned $7.20 and $5.40. The show payoff on Coast Guard, with Joe Talamo up, was $7.80.

El Gato Malo’s rider, David Flores, was passing horses, including Colonel John, early in the final turn. But Colonel John, with a clear path, charged past him and the others ahead of him.


“Some days they don’t have it, and this was one of those days,” Flores said. “He just didn’t have the extra kick I was expecting.”