Garrett Gomez saw Robby Albarado stand up and wave his whip. He saw it but didn’t want to believe it. Then he saw Albarado talking to ESPN after the race. He started thinking what might have been. Then Gomez returned to the finish line and saw that the toteboard hadn’t posted anything. He thought, ‘well, maybe.’
The maybe got it.
Colonel John and Gomez nailed Mambo In Seattle and Albarado in a head bob that defied all head bobs. There was an inch of stride when Colonel John was in front, and it so happened that it was on the wire of the 139th Travers Stakes. WinStar Farm’s Colonel John, trained by Eoin Harty, won the Grade I stakes (presented by Shadwell Farm) by a nose over Mambo In Seattle with Pyro 5 1/4 lengths back in third after 1 1/4-miles in 2:03.20.
Colonel John fought through traffic on the rail while Mambo In Seattle circled wide. The second and third choices met inside the sixteenth pole as Colonel John began to tire and Mambo In Seattle began to get there. They rushed to the wire together and live, it looked like Mambo In Seattle got there. On replay, it was questionable. On slow-motion, frame by desperate frame, it appeared to go Colonel John’s way. Not that anybody was willing to predict.
“When I got him out, I thought he was going to win, handily. He started to bottom out on me but he fought himself to the wire and gave us a chance to win the bob,” Gomez said. “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Today was our lucky day. I didn’t know. I was so focused trying to keep him going, I couldn’t tell.”
Nobody could tell.
“Unbelievable. I thought he got beat,” Harty said, moments after the race. “I thought for sure he got beat.”
“It was a heck of a head bob,” WinStar’s Doug Cauthen said. “A heck of a head bob.”
“We were watching just inside the sixteenth-pole and I thought we won,” WinStar’s Bill Casner said. “But then I saw Robby throw his stick up to celebrate and I said, ‘Aw, gosh, did we run second in this race?’ Then they ran the replay, and again I thought he won, but it wasn’t until they ran the close up replay. What a race. What a race.”
The Travers shaped up as a wide-open affair and bettors landed everywhere. Jim Dandy runner-up Pyro attracted the most attention, but he went off a tepid choice at 7-2. Colonel John, third in the Swaps in his most recent start, went off second choice. Mambo In Seattle, riding a three-race win streak, collected enough votes to be third choice. Breaking from post 2, Colonel John hopped in the air as the field broke for the $1 million stakes, forcing Gomez to get creative.
“He was standing perfect, then the roar of the crowd he went like this (gawk) and they kicked it. It surprised him and he hopped away from there,” Gomez said. “There were some words that came out. I tried to squeeze him a little, not to get him rolling but more to not give up my spot. I didn’t want to use him to get a whole lot of position but I wanted to save my spot as much as possible to see what happened going to the first turn.”
Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara (Alan Garcia) adopted his customary pace position with longshot Tizbig (Cornelio Velasquez) in second and Swaps winner Tres Borrachos briefly in third from the outside. By the time Da’ Tara led them out of the turn, Gomez had found a perfect spot, third on the inside. Mambo In Seattle, breaking from stall 9, floated wide into the first turn, 11th of 12. Down the backside, Da’ Tara led through a quarter mile in 23.91 seconds and a half in 48.06 as the field bunched up behind Da’ Tara and Tizbig. Turning for home, Da’ Tara and Tizbig began to look for their exit ramps and Tale Of Ekati (Edgar Prado) slipped through on the rail, instantly jeopardizing Colonel John’s perfect trip. On the outside, Harlem Rocker made a bid for the lead while Mambo In Seattle began to rally widest of all. Gomez looked for seams between the tiring front-runners and that’s where the fun started.
Let Gomez tell it, he was there.
“I was having a good trip, biding my time waiting to see what happened and where I needed to go. A couple of times it looked like Cornelio had more horse than Garcia had so then I swapped spots a couple of times and I’m watching, watching, watching, then I could see Cornelio was empty so I started to slide up in between them and just when I started to shove my way out, the horse on the lead (Da’ Tara) floated out, so then I’m about to rack up half the field so I jumped his heels and went back in, but when I went back in the horse on the lead came back over, now there’s two of us down inside and there’s only room for one, it was almost to the point where Edgar was in trouble so I had to relieve the pressure off of him, jump back over heels and then I had them yelling on the other side.”
Colonel John ricocheted off horses turning for home while Harlem Rocker squeezed from the outside. Colonel John finally unearthed himself from the morass and battled between Da’ Tara who actually hung tough for a long way and Harlem Rocker. Colonel John began eke away when Mambo In Seattle finally got untracked.
“I tried to float out to him but I could feel the gas running out so I was just thinking, ‘come on wire, come on wire,’ ” Gomez said. “I’ve won a lot of photos when I thought I was beat. I feel like I fight my way into the photos and a lot of times I’ll get beat in them, the bob beats me. This time we got lucky and won one.”
After the race, Casner walked to the press conference behind the jocks’ room; his left hand clutched a set of binoculars and Colonel John’s dirty saddle towel, his right hand clutched his wife Susan’s hand. She deserved it.
“This is my wife’s horse. She picked this mare out in the back ring of Keeneland, 2001. About the seventh, eighth day. She fell in love with the mare, she kept telling me to watch this mare,” Casner said of Sweet Damsel. “We were trying to sell another mare and I wasn’t paying attention to her. After we sold the other mare, I came back and she said, ‘Did you buy that black mare?’ I said no and her ol’ chin just dropped. Fortunately I went back through the results and saw that she didn’t reach her reserve so I went and bought her the next morning. She’s the best mare on the farm. It’s the one and only time she ever had that feeling. This horse is all you can ask for.”
Harty knew that all along. Going into the Kentucky Derby, Colonel John had never finished worse than second. The homebred son of Tiznow picked up Hollywood Park’s Real Quiet Stakes at 2 and the Sham and the Santa Anita Derby at 3. He went off second choice in the Derby, Harty was confident he’d at least hit the board. It went up in a sea of hooves before the field hit the first turn.
“The only real blemish is that race in Kentucky and he just had a God-awful trip. I don’t know if it was by accident or on purpose or just unfortunate, but a horse who didn’t even belong in the race takes a left-hand turn and wipes everybody out so we’re now going from laying fifth to where we have one horse beat going into the turn,” Harty said. “They’re getting further and further ahead of him and he makes a huge move, he’s got a very good turn of foot and he’s got a good move but he doesn’t have a mile move in him. I felt like we didn’t really see what he was truly capable of that day.”
Harty wisely chose to go home and regroup rather than force trips to the Preakness and/or the Belmont Stakes. Harty pointed Colonel John for the Grade II Swaps July 12. Giving nine pounds to Tres Borrachos, Colonel John played out of his zone and ended up close to the pace in a short field. At the quarter pole, he was cruising and at the wire he was upended by 1 1/4-lengths. Gomez didn’t like the way the horse emptied out at the quarter-pole after traveling like a winner but was ready to give the horse the benefit of the doubt while Harty was simply disappointed. At least until he took a step back and looked at the weight swing, the time off and the fact that he was too close to the pace.
“The weight, the layoff and seriously I think the biggest handicap in the Swaps was I didn’t get to school him. I school my horses a lot, but I was stabled at Santa Anita because I felt like the track’s better there, on Friday at Hollywood Park, it’s night racing so you can’t school,” Harty said. “He basically ships over the morning of the race and he wasn’t like he was here today, he was on his toes, he got a little hot, it’s just not like him so I felt like we were up against it in the paddock.”
Colonel John arrived in Saratoga Wednesday and schooled in the paddock Thursday and Friday. Harty was relieved to see a different Colonel John – on schooling days and race day.
“He never turned a hair from day one but for my piece of mind I did it again. The way he acted the first day was the way he acted today,” Harty said. “Unbelievable. You can’t buy that. It must be genetics. I don’t think Tiznow had the mind that this horse has, he loves to train, he loves to do everything. I know he’s going to show up for me every time.”
At the end of the day, Harty and the WinStar team walked out of the trustees’ room and planned their trip to Del Mar Sunday morning. Well Armed goes postward in the Pacific Classic. It would cap off some weekend.
“I’ve got a shot out there,” Harty said. “If he wins, I’ll retire. You can have my license.”
Amazing what a head bob will do.