03/17/2005 12:00AM

Rebel a possible Derby preview

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Afleet Alex (above) faces Rockport Harbor and Greater Good in Saturday's Rebel at Oaklawn Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - It's rare nowadays to see two of the leading Kentucky Derby hopefuls meet as early as March. And when it does happen, the venue is likely to be in Southern California, Florida, or New York.

But on Saturday, Oaklawn Park will be the setting when Afleet Alex, ranked No. 1 on Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch, faces Rockport Harbor, who is tied for third on the list. The pair is expected to meet again in the $1 million Arkansas Derby and ultimately in the Kentucky Derby.

Oaklawn has attracted an unusually deep crop of 3-year-olds this meet, just one year after Smarty Jones swept the track's 3-year-old program and went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Six were entered for Saturday's Grade 3, $250,000 , including Greater Good, who has racked up three two-turn stakes wins, including the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. In his last start, he closed from last to first to win the $100,000 Southwest here on Feb. 19. Jazzy Gallop, Batson Challenge, and Copy My Notes complete the field.

Afleet Alex, a Grade 1 winner who owns the highest Beyer Speed Figure among all 3-year-olds in 2005, will break from the rail. Rockport Harbor, an undefeated Grade 2 winner, will be to his outside in post 2, while Greater Good has post 6.

The three horses will bring distinct running styles to the table Saturday. Afleet Alex, the probable favorite, should fashion a stalking trip in the Rebel.

"I would think Rockport Harbor would be the horse in front, and Greater Good would be behind us," said Tim Ritchey, who trains Afleet Alex. "I expect [Afleet Alex] to finish strong."

Rockport Harbor is a threat to race away on the lead, and his size alone makes him imposing. He has a long stride that could make the others work hard on Saturday.

"He can throw 12 and change at you every eighth and just stroll through the park," said John Servis, who trains Rockport Harbor.

The Rebel will be Rockport Harbor's first start since the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct on Nov. 27.

"With the time he's been off, he'll probably be pretty close [to the lead]," said Servis.

Bob Holthus, the trainer of Greater Good, said he would like to see an honest pace.

"That's the main thing we're hoping for," he said. "We don't want them to go out there and run the first half in 50 [seconds]. I don't think that's going to happen with Afleet Alex and Rockport Harbor. They both have shown natural speed."

Greater Good is owned by Lewis Lakin and will be ridden by John McKee.

Afleet Alex is the one to beat. He won the Grade 1 Hopeful last year at 2, and his company lines include quality horses such as Wilko and Proud Accolade. He finished a troubled second to both in separate Grade 1 races. Afleet Alex races for Cash is King Stable and will be ridden for the first time by John Velazquez.

In his 3-year-old debut on March 5, Afleet Alex won the $50,000 Mountain Valley and earned a career-best Beyer of 106.

"I think he did that very easily," Ritchey said. "He came out of it exceptionally well, and so far we're right on schedule."

A winner of 5 of 7 starts, Afleet Alex has shown great determination in his races.

"He seems like he likes to win," Ritchey said. "He's very competitive."

So is Rockport Harbor, who after getting stepped on by another rival in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen fought on to win over the previously undefeated Galloping Grocer.

Rockport Harbor sustained a half-inch deep laceration to his right hind foot in the race, and it flared up last Saturday in one of two minor interruptions to his training schedule since February. The first came when his left front foot was found to be tender because his shoe was pinching the sole of his foot. The remedy was to have a blacksmith pare out a portion of the sole, then reset the shoe.

Servis estimates the setbacks cost Rockport Harbor one workout for the Rebel.

"I think he's fitter than a lot of people would expect, because he does things so easy," said Servis.

Stewart Elliott, who was the regular rider on Smarty Jones, has the mount on Rockport Harbor.

* Temperatures should be 65 degrees and sunny on Saturday, and Oaklawn officials are looking for a crowd approaching 40,000. The race will be covered live beginning at 5:30 p.m. Central on the ESPNEWS cable channel.

The field

Purse: $250,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 3

1Afleet AlexJ. Velazquez1176-5
2Rockport HarborS. Elliott1198-5
3Copy My NotesT. Doocy11715-1
4Jazzy GallopD. Meche11710-1
5Batson ChallengeC. Borel11730-1
6Greater GoodJ. McKee122 7-2

* Odds by Kristin Sadler