02/07/2006 1:00AM

Time for a fresh start

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Sidelined since last April, Rockport Harbor works at Oaklawn Park for his Essex appearance.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Rockport Harbor was the early favorite for last year's Kentucky Derby, but a nagging foot injury curtailed his season in April. Saturday, he will return from a nine-month layoff and meet older horses for the first time when he starts in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/16-mile Essex is a good starting point for Rockport Harbor, who could be an important player in this year's wide-open handicap division. Among his Essex rivals are Greater Good, Jonesboro, Cougar Cat, and Thunder Mission.

has been in training at Oaklawn since November. He was given six months off after finishing sixth as the favorite in the Grade 2 Lexington in his last start, on April 23. In his final prep for the Essex, he went five furlongs in 1:00.92 at Oaklawn on Sunday.

John Servis, who trains Rockport Harbor for Rick Porter, is going into the new season with high hopes for the colt, who is now healthy and whose main objective this meet is the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 8.

"I thought last year that I had the best 3-year-old in the country, and you know, we just couldn't get him right," said Servis. "I have no reason to think different now, until he shows me different. He's put all that behind him, and I think he's ready to be a racehorse."

Rockport Harbor was brilliant at 2. Unbeaten in four starts that season, he won his maiden and an allowance at Philadelphia Park before going on to capture the Grade 3 Nashua and Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct.

His record elicited excitement. So did his speed, size, stride, and connections, as Servis and the colt's regular rider, Stewart Elliott, had won the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Smarty Jones. But when Rockport Harbor was stepped on by a rival in the Remsen, it left his right hind foot severely gashed. The laceration was about a half-inch deep and extended about 2 1/2 inches, from the bottom of his pastern through the bulb of his foot.

The wound healed somewhat quickly, but flare-ups started to occur as the intensity of his training increased nearing his 3-year-old debut in March. He went on to run a valiant second to Greater Good after breaking slowly in the Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn, but his foot acted up again about a week after the race. It was wired to keep the old injury site from moving independently of the rest of the foot and to keep consistency in his step. Rockport Harbor continued to train toward the Arkansas Derby, but as the race approached, a blood clot in his neck surfaced, and he was forced to wait until the Lexington to make his next start.

After that race, Rockport Harbor was given a vacation to allow his foot to grow out. As he nears his comeback, he has become a handful while training in the mornings - so much so that he trains with a special bit and lip cord to give his exercise rider, former jockey Keith Davis, more control.

"His gallops have been different because he's gotten much tougher this year," said Servis. "Before, he would go out there and just lope around and I'd actually put some two-minute licks in him. I can't do that this year because he's just too tough. You two-minute lick him and he's going to be gone.

"For the last two and a half, three weeks, every day has been a struggle with him to just keep him from wanting to roll."

"We hope he's as good as he was last year, which I think he is," said Elliott. "He seems to be doing as well. He's working as great as he ever did."

Ronny Werner, who will send out the promising Cougar Cat in the Essex, has a high regard for Rockport Harbor.

"Anytime you take a good stakes horse like that, that's performed at that top level and done well, every time they go out there you're going to have to respect them," he said. "We're hoping that we have one that's climbing the ladder, too, trying to get there. He's been there, done that. We've got to get there and do that."

This year's version of Rockport Harbor is stouter, and more confident.

"He's filled out more," said Servis. "He's wider. He's stronger. Before he was kind of long and lean, but now he's filled out. He looks like a big, strong horse now. Before, he looked like a big, tall, skinny kid.

The hoof is good, too. "He hasn't shown any sign at all that the foot is aggravating him," said Servis. "So, I'm hoping that's well behind us. He's just got a scar there, which he'll always have. We do it up every day, just to keep it tough and hard, and it's been good. It's been really good."

So now, a healthy Rockport Harbor finally gets the chance to start building on the promise he showed in the Remsen. In that race, he set fractions of 47.20 seconds for the opening half-mile, 1:11 for six furlongs, and 1:35.40 for the mile before going on to win the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:48.80 at Aqueduct on Nov. 27, 2004. For his effort, Rockport Harbor earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 102.

"My horse was a 2-year-old making the fourth start of his life when he did that," said Servis. "So that was the race right there that told me, 'Man, this horse is just . . . he's going to be an unbelievable horse.' "

The road back starts Saturday.