01/19/2005 12:00AM

Servis's plan has familiar look to it


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Trainer John Servis is moving in. Last year, he expected his sojourn to Oaklawn to be a one-time proposition, with his young family living more than 1,000 miles away in Pennsylvania. But now, his family, along with the undefeated 3-year-old Rockport Harbor, will be calling Hot Springs home for the next few months. Servis said the decision was a no-brainer.

He came to Oaklawn for the first time last year with another undefeated colt, Smarty Jones, because he liked the distance progression and spacing of the track's stakes for 3-year-olds. Smarty Jones ended up sweeping the series, then went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, not to mention a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn.

This year, the emergence of Rockport Harbor has brought Servis back to Oaklawn. Rockport Harbor has won all four of his starts, including a hard-fought neck victory in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct over the previously undefeated Galloping Grocer. The win places Servis in the enviable position of having another top Kentucky Derby candidate, and for him, the way to get to the first Saturday in May runs through Hot Springs.

"I enjoy Arkansas," said Servis, 48. "It reminds me a lot of my hometown [in West Virginia], and it's a real good place to train a horse."

Rockport Harbor arrived at Oaklawn on Jan. 6 and is tentatively scheduled to have his first workout following a winter layoff early next week. Servis said Rockport Harbor seems more likely to make his seasonal debut in the Grade 3, $250,000 Rebel on March 19 rather than the $100,000 Southwest on Feb. 19.

"If he jumps right into it, there's a chance he makes the Southwest," said Servis.

Rockport Harbor was stepped on by another horse in the Nov. 27 Remsen and left with a half-inch deep gash to his right hind foot. It extended about 2 1/2 inches in length, from the bottom of his pastern through the bulb and the heel of his hind foot.

"Another inch higher and we would have been getting into those ligaments," said Servis.

Rockport Harbor's recovery period coincided with the winter vacation Servis had planned for him, and as of late last week, Servis said the gash was about 90 percent healed. Rockport Harbor has shown no ill effects from the ordeal. "I think we were all affected more mentally than he was," joked Servis.

Rockport Harbor, a $470,000 yearling purchase, also won the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct last year. He enters the Oaklawn meet with bigger credentials than Smarty Jones had a year ago, yet he was slower to develop.

"I would say the only similarity between them is that they're both very talented individuals," said Servis. "Otherwise, there is nothing alike between the two. Rockport Harbor was like Baby Huey, where Smarty, from day one, was high energy. He was, 'Let's go as far as I can and go as fast as I can.'

"Rocky was like, 'What do I do?' He's so talented, he's winning in spite of that. He was winning some serious races, and that 'light' was not on yet."

But now it is. Servis said about four or five days before the Remsen, Rockport Harbor was just beginning to get more aggressive in his training. "I get the feeling the farther down the line we get, the bigger the smile on my face will get," said Servis.

Stewart Elliott, who rode Smarty Jones, is the regular rider of Rockport Harbor. Rockport Harbor races for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms, which has been a Servis client since 1991. Jostle, a Grade 1 winner, is the best horse Servis and Porter have raced as a team.

Servis will be splitting his time between his five-horse string in Hot Springs and his 27-horse stable at Philadelphia Park. His work with Smarty Jones earned him widespread respect among his peers, including trainer Wayne Lukas, the winner of a co-record 13 Triple Crown races who has moved a division into Oaklawn.

"I thought he did an excellent job managing that horse," said Lukas. "Anytime you win two of the three legs and are able to be in a position to win the third, you've done an excellent job."

Smarty Jones was Servis's first Kentucky Derby starter. Despite the pressure of training the Derby favorite, Servis was focused and did not deviate from his instincts. "Smarty taught me you don't have to change," said Servis. "You can be yourself and do things the way you want and be successful."