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Jan 21, 2005

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Since setting foot in Hot Springs last Friday, I have been besieged by

one burning question: To wit: Is Rockport Harbor as good as they say he is?

The answer is yes.

The last time I saw Rockport Harbor was Nov. 27 at the receiving barn

at Aqueduct. Rocky had just run the second fastest Remsen in history,

 but it came at a price - a huge gash (the size of a silver dollar) on the

 back of his right ankle.

The wound was treated with antibiotics, and the rest was up to

Mother Nature. Rocky stayed in the barn 42 days, and two weeks back

 he was vanned to Oaklawn Park along with three fillies and a stable pony

 named Banjo, who craves peppermint mints.

On Saturday morning, I stopped by to see Rocky. I found him in the

same stall in the same barn that Smarty Jones occupied for three months

 here last winter. And he was doing just fine thank you. The wound had

 healed entirely, and he had grown considerably in the two months since

I last saw him. He looked every part of the Kentucky Derby future book favorite.

"He"s doing great," stable foreman Bill Foster told me. "He"s out on the

 track galloping every day, and as soon as John gets here, we"ll map out

a training schedule."

John of course is John Servis, who has had the unbelievably good fortune

 to get a Smarty Jones and a Rockport Harbor back to back.

At this time last year, I wrote in this space -- until I was blue in the

face -- that Smarty Jones was the next Seattle Slew. I honestly feel that

 Rockport Harbor is the next Secretariat.

Servis, presently hunkered down at his home base of Philadelphia Park,

will be in California next week for the Eclipse Awards. He"ll then drive from

 Philly to Hot Springs to take over the supervision of Rocky. Unlike last

 year, when Servis commuted weekly between Hot Springs and Philly,

he"ll stay here for the duration of the Oaklawn meet, which ends April

16 with the Arkansas Derby.

For now, Rocky is scheduled to run in the Southwest on Feb. 19, the Rebel

 on March 19, and the Arkansas Derby. If those races sound familiar, it"s

 because Smarty won all three last year.

Rocky won"t lack for competition in those races. Afleet Alex, the most

accomplished 2-year-old of last year, and Greater Good, a two-time

stakes-winner last year, also are being pointed for those three races.

ESPN already has signed on to cover the Arkansas Derby. I would suggest

 they get here early for the Southwest and the Rebel.

Otherwise, there are two major news stories here this week:

1) The last two mornings, the temperature registered 18 degrees.
And it is all the way up to 24 degrees as this is being written. But the

 good news is that by kickoff Friday afternoon, it will be 65 degrees

and counting.

2) I spoke to old friend Bobby Frankel this morning, and Frankel had

some interesting news: Horse of the Year Ghostzapper will make his

season debut in the Oaklawn Handicap at Oaklawn Park, Hot Springs,

 Ark., on April 9.

"If they treat me well in the weights, I"ll be there," Bob said. That

said, I suspect that Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope indeed will treat

 Frankel well in the weights. Pat"s that kind of guy.

Frankel incidentally will be shooting for his third straight Oaklawn

Handicap with Ghostzapper, who next Tuesday will be named Horse

 of the Year. Frankel won the 2003 running with Medaglia d"Oro, and

 the "04 running with Peace Rules. No trainer in the 50-year history of

 the Oaklawn "Cap has won three editions of the race, much less consecutively.

While I had Bob in a good mood, I asked him "what"s gonna happen

 with Ghostzapper after Hot Springs?"

"Since you"re my old Brooklyn buddy, I"ll give you the deal,"
he said. "After Hot Springs, Ghostzapper will go to New York for five

 races -- the Met Mile, the Suburban, the Whitney, the Woodward, and

 the Breeders" Cup."

Four of those five races will be at Belmont, all but the Whitney, which,

 the last I looked, will be run on the first Saturday of Saratoga.

For sure, Oaklawn Park had a better year than the Dallas Cowboys, a

 matter of significance because Hot Springs is located squarely in the heart of Cowboys" country.

My first year here, I went to a Super Bowl party, and watched Dallas beat

Pittsburgh. I was the only one at the party rooting for the Steelers, which

 lost the game, but covered the spread, which made me as happy as the

 Cowboy rednecks.

Since that game, the Steelers have gone 87-56, 5-4 in the playoffs, and

are playing in the AFL championship game Sunday. The Cowboys? They

 have gone 65-79, 1-4 in the playoffs, and are on the golf course or better

 at the present time.

And just how did Cowboys" coach Parcells respond to the team"s present

 problems? Yesterday he fired the kicking coach, a fellow named Steve Hoffman.

 It seems Hoffman took the fall because Cowboys" kicker Cundiff blew a key

46-yard field goal in a late-season 12-7 loss to the Eagles.

Speaking of kickers, kudos to the Dallas News for an item in last Saturday"s

 editions:

In a preview of that day"s Jets-Steelers game, the News ran the

 following piece:

"Everybody wants to call Jets" kicker Doug Brien a clutch performer for his

 28-yard chip shot in overtime to beat the Chargers last week. But remember

 that Brien missed a 33-yarder, had a 42-yarder bank in off the goal post and

almsot missed an extra point.

"Maybe he (Brien)learned from the game, but there were also plenty of signs that

he could crack at some point."

Finally, just once I would like to see an NFL coach show some guts.

You"ll recall last Sunday the key point in the Pats-Colts game.
With the Pats up, 6-3, the Colts were fourth and a foot at midfield. Here you

have the most high-powered offense in football, headed by a $90 million

 QB...and they punted, just as the announcers -- as always -- implored them to do.

"You can"t take a chance," they said.

I, for one, want to know why not?

I turned off the TV at that point...and went out for crawfish.



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