03/23/2005 1:00AM

Rockport Harbor right on schedule

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PHILADELPHIA - A week before the Rebel Stakes, Rockport Harbor could not get out of his stall. The day after the horse ran second in the race, it was hard to keep him from rushing back to the track.

"He came out of it good," said Rockport Harbor's trainer, John Servis. "It's hard to believe a week before the horse couldn't even get out his stall. If we don't have any setbacks from here on out, we're going to be in very good shape."

A year ago, nothing went wrong for Servis with Smarty Jones. This year, very little has gone right for Rockport Harbor, who missed training last month with a foot problem.

Yet when it finally came time to run, Rockport came running. Greater Good won the Rebel, but there is no question that Rockport won the race within the race. Rockport Harbor stumbled at the start and still made the lead entering the backstretch. You have to think that if the horse breaks with the others and does not have to loop the field on the first turn, he wins.

Rockport made a clear lead in the Rebel for the fifth time in five career starts. He has now been in front at every point of call but the final one in the Rebel. Even after getting beat at the wire, jockey Stewart Elliott kept after Rockport and the colt won the gallop-out by several lengths.

Nothing is guaranteed in this Kentucky Derby business. Still, as we head for the final preps, Rockport Harbor has to be on any short list. Even though Greater Good, a colt with a terrific record but nothing close to a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, will come back in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 16, Rockport Harbor is almost certainly going to be favored.

"He ran super," Servis said. "He will be a force to be reckoned with from now on."

Rockport is one of those long-striders that really do not appear to be running fast, even when they are. Last November, Rockport got a 102 Beyer when he won the Remsen Stakes. Under the circumstances, his 94 Beyer in the Rebel was perfect.

It would be a major shock if Rockport does not get back into the triple-digit Beyer range in the Arkansas Derby. And if so, it would set him up perfectly for Kentucky to get into the 107 Beyer range that it probably will take to win the Derby.

The Arkansas Derby will only be Rockport Harbor's second race of the year. Yes, I do know all the statistics on two Derby preps vs. three Derby preps. And they are certainly daunting. But with Rockport Harbor, there were no other choices.

He simply was not ready for the Feb. 19 Southwest Stakes. But it is not as if this colt had no foundation. As 2-year-old seasons go these days, Rockport's was textbook perfect - maiden, allowance, Grade 3 stakes, Grade 2 stakes. Nothing too taxing, just enough to get him tested and get enough graded earnings to be certain of getting into the Derby field.

If the Derby runup fit into a perfect pattern, those of us who try to pick the winner each year would not be so wrong so often. Just when we all have an understanding of the most recent patterns, they usually change.

If you don't like Rockport Harbor after the Arkansas Derby, make your reservations about something other than two preps. That's just too easy. And this exercise is never easy.

Ask Servis.

Rockport went so quickly in his gallop on Friday, March 11, that it was mistaken for a workout. He was that sharp. Servis laughed and told the clocker, He "gallops along pretty good."

"He galloped real strong" Servis said. "I was the happiest man in Arkansas. The clocker called me and said they were putting a work in the Form."

It was so good that Rockport was timed a mile in 1:43. It was a sign that Rockport was, according to Servis, "just perfect."

Not so the next morning.

"Saturday morning I come in and he can't even walk," Servis said.

So just when you think you know something you find out you really don't.

An injury to a rear hoof in the Remsen last November kept Rockport off the track several weeks longer than Servis would have liked. A shoeing problem in a front hoof caused a few more small problems a few weeks before the Rebel. Then another hoof problem surfaced a week before the Rebel. Through all this, Rockport has missed five days on the track since he first went back in training at Oaklawn Park in early January.

Excuses in horse racing are mostly bogus. Apparently, losing to a faster horse just is not acceptable. There must be a reason for it. But in the 2005 Rebel, there really was a reason for Rockport Harbor's loss. How much better he truly is will be determined in the weeks and months ahead.