As far as Eoin Harty is concerned, his top colt Colonel John has nothing to prove to him this weekend.
In his eight career races, the son of Tiznow has more than lived up to any expectations Harty had, winning the Grade I Santa Anita Derby in April and becoming the first-ever Kentucky Derby starter for his trainer.
Admittedly, Harty’s admiration for Colonel John isn’t going to waver based on the outcome of a race or two.
The racing public, however, has not been nearly as forgiving.
Only months removed from being one of the more highly touted members of this 3-year-old crop, Colonel John aims to secure a measure of redemption Saturday when he faces a deep field of 11 challengers in the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
If there was a horse that was going to derail Big Brown’s quest for Kentucky Derby glory, many — especially those who witnessed his sizzling five-furlong move at Churchill Downs on Derby week — believed Colonel John was the one.
Since finishing a disappointing sixth at the Derby, his first start over a dirt track, the buzz on Colonel John has died down considerably. Not helping matters was a subsequent third-place finish behind the unproven Tres Borrachos in the Grade II Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 12.
As he did before the Derby, Colonel John heads into the Travers with critics wondering if he can handle a non- synthetic track and the 11/4-mile distance.
Instead of being the “It” horse this time around, Harty hopes being under the radar will translate into better results.
“He’s really, really in top form right now,” Harty said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. “I worked him (Tuesday) and he worked super. He came off the track bouncing and wanting more and I couldn’t be any happier with him. I wouldn’t want to trade with anybody right now.”
Colonel John’s last two disappointing efforts are not without their excuses.
In the Derby, Harty said WinStar Farm’s homebred “lost all chance” when he was crowded at the start. When Colonel John returned in the Swaps Stakes, he ended up laying uncharacteristically close to the pace as Two Step Salsa led the early fractions.
“Initially I was disappointed (after the Swaps) but when the numbers came out it turned out that was the best race he’s run in his life,” Harty said. “(Two Step Salsa) got loose on the lead and we were committed to chasing after him, which I think is a little out of this horse’s style of running. And we were giving away 10 pounds to the winner. So I think all things combined, it was probably a little better than it looked.”
Even with the absence of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown, the Travers has come up as arguably the toughest 3-year-old test since the Derby itself.
Not only will Colonel John get another look at Swaps Stakes winner Tres Borrachos, but Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara is seeking to bounce back from a last-place finish in the Jim Dandy while morning-line favorite Pyro — second in the Jim Dandy last time out — appears to be rounding into the form that allowed him to dominate the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes earlier this year.
“We were disappointed he didn’t win the Jim Dandy, but it was a good effort,” said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Pyro “When we lead him over, we are going to lead him over with confidence.”
Though he is untested against such company, the Neil Howard-trained Mambo in Seattle comes into the Travers off three straight wins and some favorable history on his side.
Howard nearly pulled off the upset in the Travers last year with another wild card when Grasshopper ran second to champion Street Sense after a battle through the stretch.
“They both started a little late in their 3-year-old years,” Howard said in comparing Mambo in Seattle to Grasshopper. “We gave him time to be what he can be. It’s a big step up for him, but it’s also a big step up for a lot of them.”