02/09/2006 12:00AM

Rockport Harbor resumes his career

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The wait is over.

Rockport Harbor will make his first start in nine months on Saturday in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

An early favorite for last year's Kentucky Derby, his comeback is the main story line for the 1 1/16-mile race. But there are subplots of interest involving Cougar Cat, a son of the millionaire mare Excellent Meeting who makes his two-turn debut; Real Dandy, the 118-pound highweight who makes his first start at 4; and Greater Good, who defeated Rockport Harbor the last time the two met at Oaklawn in the Grade 3 Rebel.

The field of eight also includes , Thunder Mission, Matched, and Silver Axe.

will vie for favoritism in the Essex. He has been aggressive in training, and has worked sharply at Oaklawn, where he has been based since November. His 4-year-old debut comes not a minute too soon for his trainer, John Servis.

"I'm at the stage now where he just needs to run," said Servis, who trains Rockport Harbor for Rick Porter.

Rockport Harbor battled a nagging foot injury last year that cut his season short. He has not raced since April 23, when he finished sixth as the favorite in the Grade 2 Lexington at Keeneland.

"Basically, we just kicked him out and let him be a horse," said Servis.

During his time off, Rockport Harbor's right hind foot grew out. It was stepped on by a rival when he won the Grade 2 Remsen. And he grew as well - into a stronger, more physically mature colt. Saturday, he begins a season in which he could develop into a major player in the handicap division.

"It's been a long time since he's run, so hopefully he'll progress with each race and he'll go on to be what we hope he is," said Servis. "I'm anxious to get him going."

Stewart Elliott, who has the mount on Rockport Harbor, said he looks for the colt to race on or close to the pace Saturday.

comes into the Essex off two impressive sprint wins at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs.

"The big key to me is that he's going to have to really relax and settle that first part," said Ronny Werner, who trains Cougar Cat and has given the mount to Robby Albarado.