02/11/2006 12:00AM

Rockport Harbor wins Essex

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Rockport Harbor signaled his intent to be a player in this year's wide-open handicap division when, in his first start in nine months, he withstood a stretch challenge and went on to a two and a quarter length win in the Grade 3, $100,000 at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.

Thunder Mission finished second in the race, and it was another neck back in third to Silver Axe.

Rockport Harbor ($4) broke sharp but inward at the start of the mile and a sixteenth race, and moved to the lead in the first turn while racing four wide. Over a track rated good, he proceeded to set uncontested fractions of 24.09 seconds for the opening quarter, 48.07 for the half-mile mark and 1:14.87 for six furlongs. Cougar Cat moved to challenge Rockport Harbor approaching the quarter pole, and drew even with him in the drive. But the eventual winner fought back along the rail, rising to the challenge in a determined, professional manner. Rockport Harbor went on to cover the distance in 1:47.68.

"Turning for home, that horse came to him and I asked him to run and he gave me what he had," said Stewart Elliott, who rode Rockport Harbor. "He was game. He showed that he was back."

Rockport Harbor had not raced since April 23, when he finished sixth as the favorite in the Grade 2 Lexington. He was given time off after the race to allow his right hind foot to grow out. Rockport Harbor had been stepped on by a rival when he won the Grade 2 Remsen in November 2004, and the foot flared up last year at 3.

John Servis, who trains Rockport Harbor, was most impressed with how the colt dug in when challenged Saturday. He said Rockport Harbor would now be pointed for the Grade 3, $150,000 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn on March 12. That race is the final local prep for the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 8.

Rockport Harbor earned $60,000 for the Essex win, which was his fifth career victory in seven starts. His earnings now stand at $320,300. The Essex was Rockport Harbor's third career stakes win. In addition to the Remsen, he won the Grade 3 Nashua at 2.

Rockport Harbor is a son of Unbridled's Song and he races for Fox Hill Farms.

* Attendance ontrack Saturday was 17,118. Handle on the 10-race card from all sources was $5,763,053.