04/20/2005 11:00PM

Down to a last shot

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Rockport Harbor, with Bobby Velez up, gallops at Keeneland for the Lexington after an injury-filled winter and spring.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The back door is open. Now all Rockport Harbor has to do is come barging through.

As the most obvious candidate to advance to the 131st Kentucky Derby, Rockport Harbor will be a solid favorite to successfully employ the so-called backdoor route to Churchill Downs when he faces seven other 3-year-olds Saturday in the $325,000 at Keeneland.

The Grade 2 Lexington is the final stepping-stone on the Derby trail, and as such, it has come to represent a last-gasp opportunity for a ticket to Louisville. Unfortunate and untimely circumstances that lead to hastily revised plans have certainly been the bane of Rockport Harbor, an outstanding racehorse whose well-documented travails throughout the winter and early spring have kept him teetering on the fringes of Derby extinction.

"I would have loved to have run in the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby," said John Servis, who trained Rockport Harbor at Oaklawn Park this winter. "But that hasn't happened. It's all been out of our control."

Still, Servis, who won the Derby last year with Smarty Jones, is justified in hoping the Lexington will provide the springboard to the May 7 Derby for Rockport Harbor, who was unbeaten in four starts at 2 but whose lone start at 3 resulted in a second-place finish in the March 19 Rebel. Owned by Fox Hill Farms, Rockport Harbor has had his Derby campaign interrupted by an injured hind hoof, a pinched front foot caused by a shoeing problem, and a blood clot in his neck, but Servis is confident that all the problems are history.

"I'm looking for him to win," he said. "I'm looking for a big win for him, and I'm looking for him to gallop out good, show he's ready to go a mile and a quarter."

Rockport Harbor, with Stewart Elliott to ride, will start from post 5 in the Lexington, a 1 1/16-mile race that begins and ends at what normally is the sixteenth pole. As a means of squeezing a little more seasoning into the colt, Servis has instructed Elliott to ride out Rockport Harbor another sixteenth-mile to the regular finish line.

Besides Rockport Harbor, there are at least a few other 3-year-olds looking to earn a Derby berth Saturday.

They include Going Wild and Skye'n Thunder, an uncoupled duo trained by

D. Wayne Lukas; Sort It Out, who represents the last chance for trainer Bob Baffert to have a Derby starter; and Storm Surge, a consistent colt who has won 5 of 10 career starts for trainer Dallas Stewart.

Lukas is conspicuous by his presence if only because he has frequently used the Lexington as a way into the Derby, most notably in 1999, when Charismatic won both races.

The rest of the Lexington field is Actxecutive, Coin Silver, and Forever Wild.

The Lexington, which will be televised live on ESPN2 on a one-hour show that starts at 4:30 p.m. Eastern, is expected to be run amid a highly unseasonable chill. Rain was forecast for Friday, and a Saturday cold front was supposed to keep the high temperature in the mid-40's.

Bellamy Road works five furlongs

Bellamy Road, the probable favorite for the Derby, went through a sharp workout just as dawn was breaking Thursday at Churchill, getting five furlongs in 1:02.80.

With regular exercise rider Carlos Correa aboard, and over a fast surface, Bellamy Road broke off approaching the half-mile pole and proceeded to the finish line in fractions of 13.20, 25.80, 38, and 49.80 seconds. The colt then continued around the clubhouse turn to the seven-furlong pole in 1:02.80 and galloped out to the six-furlong pole in 1:16.40, finally pulling up and turning around in the vicinity of the half-mile pole.

"I thought it was a super work," said trainer Nick Zito. "He went from the eighth pole to the wire in under 12 seconds, so that was great to see. I had him keep going around the turn because you like to change 'em up sometimes. I'll give him one more work before the big day, probably next Saturday, although that's always subject to change."

As Thursday approached, Zito deliberated at length over what time to work the colt before settling on about 6:45 a.m. Eastern in order to avoid the possibility of an off track. A good chance of rain had been widely forecast for early Thursday, although it did not rain during training hours.

Zito fences off some private space

For Zito, the Bellamy Road breeze made for another happy morning. With five Derby hopefuls - the others are High Fly, Noble Causeway, Sun King, and Andromeda's Hero - these are days that are sure to leave him with indelible memories. And in large part because of this pervasive sense of history in the making, swarms of onlookers, not to mention scores of media members, soon will be making tracks to his Churchill barn.

Duly warned, Zito is duly armed. Earlier this week, he and his staff cordoned off a sizable area adjacent to the barn entrance with a very sturdy, albeit somewhat unsightly, fence constructed of white PVC pipe. "The Great Wall of Zito," as one reporter jokingly called the 4 1/2-foot-high fence, should serve its purpose in giving Zito breathing room while also making its mark as the first contraption of its kind in Derby history.

"I love talking to the media and racing people and just people in general," he said. "Everybody knows that. But come on. That doesn't mean I have time to talk to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who comes around, especially not during training hours. We're here to get a job done."

While talking with a few reporters following the Thursday work, Zito had a sleeve of about two dozen Live Oak Plantation ballcaps in his hand. He said he planned to have caps for all five of his Derby runners.

"I want to wear a different one every day," he said. "Got to be fair to everybody."

Ritchey ready for special time

Afleet Alex arrived early Wednesday evening at Churchill following a 10-hour van ride from Oaklawn Park, where last Saturday the colt won the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths. Early Thursday, trainer Tim Ritchey had Afleet Alex out for a routine jog from Barn 41, one of the two barns that traditionally house Derby horses.

"I might breeze him once before the Derby, maybe twice," said Ritchey. "We'll see how it goes."

Although Ritchey has been training for some 30 years, having started at Waterford Park (now Mountaineer), this is the first time he has been to Churchill. When told Afleet Alex had taken up residence in or near the same stall as such Derby legends as Ferdinand, Sunday Silence, and Fusaichi Pegasus, Ritchey brightened.

"I keep getting told this is going to be an experience to remember," said Ritchey. "John Servis is a good friend of mine, and he has kind of filled me in on some things. It should be fun."

Ritchey, who also brought several other horses to Churchill from Oaklawn, was scheduled to return this weekend to Delaware Park to look in on his 40-horse stable. He will return Monday to Louisville to remain through the Derby.