The bay Tiznow colt was guided to a determined half-length victory by rider Corey Nakatani, who earned his first Santa Anita Derby win in 12 tries.
Stuck in traffic and with five horses to overcome, Colonel John appeared well beaten with three-eighths of a mile to go. But Colonel John, picking his way between rivals slightly off the rail, wasn't finished. The patient Nakatani gave his lanky charge a couple of cracks with the left-handed whip in upper stretch and Colonel John drifted out a bit for his late run. He changed leads and exploded impressively past the stubborn pacesetters Bob Black Jack and Coast Guard in deep stretch to win in a full drive. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile test for 3-year-olds on the main synthetic track was 1:48.16.
"He was a little bit farther back than I wanted," said winning trainer Eoin Harty, "but he finished strong."
The Irishman Harty, a former lead assistant to Bob Baffert, said he would give Colonel John two works at Santa Anita before shipping to Churchill Downs 12 days before the May 3 Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"We'll give him one more big work at Churchill — and then pray," said Harty after his first Santa Anita Derby win. "I feel like the guy who won the $1 million horseshoe toss on St. Patrick's Day. About 10 o'clock tonight, it will probably sink in."
Harty said he likes his chances in Louisville and believes the 1 1/4-mile distance will suit Colonel John.
"He's always very professional, never turns a hair," he said. "He's got the mind for it (the Derby.)"
Fractions were solid for the distance — :23.33, :47.57, and 1:11.64 — and it appeared that Coast Guard and Bob Black Jack would be difficult to catch. Bob Black Jack, ridden by Richard Migliore, took the lead in the final furlong but had to settle for second. He finished one length in front of Coast Guard and Joe Talamo, with Yankee Bravo fourth.
"No doubt, he's a special horse," said Nakatani, who lost the mount on Colonel John for the colt's victory in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) while recovering from a broken collarbone. "We were very confident in him. He's just a tremendous animal.
"I couldn't have been in a better position," Nakatani added. "I wanted to be patient."
El Gato Malo, the 9-5 favorite in the 11-horse field, finished fifth, 5 1/4 lengths behind Colonel John. Runner-up to Colonel John in the Sham after a difficult trip, El Gato Malo had an awkward start for jockey David Flores. The El Corredor gelding loomed up while wide on the final turn but was under pressure from Flores to do it and failed to respond in the stretch.
The homebred Colonel John won for the fourth time in six starts with two seconds and bumped his earnings to $825,300 with the Santa Anita Derby's winning share of $450,000. Running on synthetic racing surfaces his entire career, Colonel John would be making his first start on dirt at Churchill Downs. Out of the Turkoman mare Sweet Damsel, distance should not be a problem.
Sent off as the second choice, Colonel John paid $7.20, $4, and $3.20. Bob Black Jack, third in the San Felipe (gr. II) in his last start for trainer James Kasparoff, was an unlucky loser. He returned $7.20 and $5.40 and capped a $2 exacta worth $49.20. Coast Guard was $7 to show in a much-improved effort for trainer David Hofmans.
Yankee Bravo and El Gato Malo were followed by On the Virg, Shore Do, Meetingwithdestiny, Polonius, Rosso Corea, and Signature Move, who was eased late after pressing the pace for three-quarters of a mile.