12/01/2004 12:00AM

Can lightning strike the Pha twice?


Rockport Harbor and Stewart Elliott hold off a tough Galloping Grocer.

PHILADELPHIA - The Smarty Jones saga had enough storylines to keep everybody busy all spring. The most unlikely was based on the horse being stabled at Philadelphia Park.

If you had spent much time at the Pha, you could not have imagined it. If you had not been there, you would never have thought it. The place is a factory that produces races, not racehorses.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike overlooks a barn area that time forgot. Route 1 is just a mile away. Interstate 95 is a few miles in the other direction. The track's close neighbors are McDonald's, Exxon, and Holiday Inn. It is not Keeneland.

As I made the trek down Route 1 each morning in the days leading up to the Belmont Stakes, I was certain of one thing. This could never happen again.

One quiet morning, John Servis took me aside, walked me around to a stall, and suggested that the inhabitant, a gray son of Unbridled's Song, might be a really good one. I listened politely and filed it away.

On the first Sunday of the NFL season, a month after Smarty had been retired, Rockport Harbor left Barn 11 and emerged into the sunshine at the Pha. He was in the day's first race. He was 3-10. He ran right to his odds, beating nine hopelessly outclassed 2-year-olds.

Rockport's Beyer was 73. A solid debut, I thought. But, really, this could never happen again. Not at the Pha.

A month later, Rockport hit the track again. He faced four no-chance opponents. He was 1-10. He won by 7 1/2 lengths. He got an 85 Beyer. A nice improvement, I thought. But, really, this could not be happening again. It just couldn't.

On Election Day, Rockport took a van ride to Aqueduct. A far better class of opponents awaited in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes. It ended up looking just like those two races at the Pha. Rockport went right to the front, shook off a very brief challenge on the turn, and cruised home, majestically alone, 6 1/4 lengths in front of Defer, a colt who would win the Laurel Futurity in his next start. The Beyer was an 84. The performance somehow seemed better.

With Servis training and Stewart Elliott riding, the Smarty Jones comparisons started in earnest. Horse wins first two races at the Pha. Goes to Aqueduct for third start. Dominates.

I saw what I saw. Still, I knew this could not be happening. Not again. Not at the Pha.

Once in a lifetime, maybe. Twice in a year? Not possible.

After the Nashua, Servis announced that it would be Rockport's last race of 2004. Everybody would have to wait until Arkansas.

Then, wanting Rockport to get all the graded earnings he could get, Servis changed his mind. Rockport would go in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 27. He would try 1 1/8 miles. He would face a horse with real talent and a pair of 95 Beyers. He would try Galloping Grocer, winner of his three starts by a combined 31 3/4 lengths.

Tom Durkin's call was as good as the race. It was one of those pitched battles that only really good horses can sustain. Rockport led from the start. Galloping Grocer challenged the length of the stretch. Rockport would not let him get by and won it by a neck.

The 102 Beyer told the other story. These were two high-quality horses in a high-quality race.

If it's true you can't be sure about a horse until he gets his first real competition, Rockport Harbor passed the competition test with a very high score.

When I visited Barn 11 on Monday morning, Rockport was resting at the back of his stall, a bandage covering a cut on his right rear leg that he probably sustained on the first turn of the Remsen. He will miss a couple of weeks of training, but Servis had planned to give him a rest anyway. Rockport will head to Arkansas sometime after Christmas.

Rick Porter spent $470,000 to buy Rockport in 2003. This is not a Pennsylvania-bred from a stable that was just about out of the business. Porter's Fox Hill Farm is a serious player. He has spent a lot of money searching for the big horse.

Still, the Pha? This simply could not be happening again. Could it?