02/23/2005 1:00AM

Steps in the right direction

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Rockport Harbor gallops at Oaklawn Park a few days before coming up with soreness in his left front foot. The solution was an adjustment to the shoe, the front of which was pinching Rockport Harbor's sole.

At the start of the 1997 Preakness Stakes, Touch Gold stumbled so badly that he tore off a chunk of his left front foot. It was a bloody, ugly mess after the race. Yet three weeks later, Touch Gold ruined the Triple Crown bid of Silver Charm by re-rallying to take the Belmont Stakes.

The victory was a testament to the courage of the colt, a clever ride by Chris McCarron, and the training skill of David Hofmans. But Hofmans is the first to admit that if not for Ian McKinlay, Touch Gold never would have been in the race.

"He was invaluable," Hofmans said this week. "Without a good blacksmith who knew what he was doing, he would not have made it."

McKinlay and his brethren have been working overtime this spring. Already the Kentucky Derby crop of 2005 has had several members who have had their schedules interrupted by foot troubles. Roman Ruler, whom McKinlay has worked on, missed Santa Anita's San Vicente Stakes earlier this month with a quarter crack. Galloping Grocer came out of Aqueduct's Whirlaway Stakes with a foot bruise. And this past week, unbeaten Rockport Harbor missed a few days of training at Oaklawn Park with a sore left front foot.

Rockport Harbor's injury caused some angst for his trainer, John Servis. Finding the source of lameness in a foot is often a game of hide and seek. What is causing the soreness? What is the treatment? Make the wrong move, and a horse can lose significant time, a problem that trainers of 3-year-olds cannot afford when the Derby is fast approaching.

"Normally, in this case, we might have spent a week trying to diagnose it, but with us on the time schedule we're on, we had to hope we hit it," Servis said from Oaklawn, where Rockport Harbor is preparing for next month's Rebel Stakes. "It can be misdiagnosed. Your first instinct with a foot is to break out the hot water and Epsom salts and try to draw it out. In this case, that would have been exactly the wrong thing to do."

Jeff Kirk, who worked with Rockport Harbor as a young horse in Ocala, Fla., told Servis by phone that Rockport Harbor had previously developed a problem when a shoe pinched him near the front of the foot. Servis hoped that was the source of this week's trouble. Upon further investigation with Oaklawn-based blacksmith Leonard Warf, they found it was.

"Thank God for Jeff," Servis said. "He broke Rockport Harbor. He's also an excellent blacksmith. He said the colt had had a similar problem early on, so we went right to work on it. It's in the sole, right behind the front of the shoe, behind the toe grab. Part of the shoe and the pad sitting on it were pinching the sole. It's like a spot on your foot that you keep hitting a lot. It gets a bruise and it gets tender."

Servis said the shoe and the pad were adjusted to where "it wasn't sitting on it, and he made a complete turnaround."

"I mean, it was unbelievable," he said. "Now we just have to toughen up the sole," which Servis said includes painting it with turpentine.

Last year, Smarty Jones had some foot bruises that needed to be excised one week before the Derby. "They were no big deal. You just cut them out," Servis said. "Old bruises work their way out like a splinter. You cut it out, then pack the foot to get the rest out."

Quarter cracks, by contrast, are far more of a challenge. A blacksmith who can deal quickly with them, Servis said, is analogous to having a good cut man in the ring of a prizefight.

"The better your guy is, the better off you'll be," Servis said.

"Before you replace the shoe, you have to fill in the crack with epoxy to make a partial hoof," he said. "The key is to get everything dried out before you bond it. If you don't, it's going to come out, and come at the most inopportune time."

Hofmans said he has had great success with Keith Bowen in California and McKinlay, who is based in New Jersey.

"Keith for years has been excellent with quarter cracks," said Hofmans, who said both Bowen and McKinlay were instrumental in keeping Alphabet Soup going the winter before he won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic.

The following spring, McKinlay worked his magic with Touch Gold.

Touch Gold in the Preakness "pulled away a section of his foot," Hofmans said. "It was two inches wide all the way from the coronet band. You had to stabilize the area from the frog to where the good part of the foot is. There were screws on either side of the area, and it was held together with wire and laces. That holds the foot together. When there's movement, that's when there's pain. And if there's movement, you can't grow a solid hoof.

"The best thing for a trainer to do is stay out of the way," Hofmans said. "These guys are experts. I stayed out of the way with Touch Gold, and I'm glad I did."

In other Derby developments:

* Sun King, who has not raced since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, should race within days, trainer Nick Zito said. Zito also said he is considering the Gotham Stakes as the next start for High Fly.

* Roman Ruler also could end up in the Gotham, according to trainer Bob Baffert, who said Sort It Out will go in the Louisiana Derby.

* Bobby Frankel said he likely would bypass allowance races and look for a graded stakes race for High Limit, who has no graded stakes earnings. If the Derby field has more than 20 entrants, graded stakes earnings determine the starting field.

* There are two stakes for 3-year-olds this weekend, but they are ungraded, and neither will attract any top Derby candidates. Both the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa and the Borderland Derby at Sunland are 1 1/16-mile races with $100,000 purses.

WHO'S HOT: Only one top 25 runner - Greater Good - was in action last weekend, so when he won the Southwest Stakes, it meant there would be no change to the horses on the list.

WHO'S NOT: The horses training in California. The relentless rain - please, please, make it stop already - has interrupted training schedules and, in the case of Wilko, postponed a 2005 debut by two weeks.

ON THE BUBBLE: Golden Shine was an impressive winner against allowance runners last week at Santa Anita, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 96 in his first start since last summer. There was no room for him in the top 25 this week, but he would be the first to be added should anyone on the list take a step backward. His trainer, David Hofmans, said the March 19 San Felipe is next.