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Feb 25, 2005

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


On Sunday morning, I went to John Servis' barn at the far end of the

 Oaklawn Park backstretch to watch Rockport Harbor tack up for his

scheduled mile workout.

As I approached the barn, it was obvious things were not good. Servis was

 wearing a frown down to his waist, and Rocky was standing in a tub.

"It doesn't look good," Servis told me.

I didn't need to be the Jeopardy Guy to see that.

Servis told me Rocky had a foot bruise, and he had no idea the severity

 of the injury. The best 3-year-old on the planet was standing in a

 hot tub. Rocky was in pain. Servis was in pain. And I was in pain. Not

 to mention the folks who had Rocky in the futures at obscene numbers.

"Day to day," said Servis. "That's all I can say."

I went back to my office in the dungeons of Oaklawn Park to tell the

world about Rocky's injury. It was a scoop I really didn't need or want.

Anyhow, I knocked out 500 words, and posted the piece on the internet.

By mid-day, my piece was everywhere. In every trade magazine, in virtually

 every newspaper with a pulse. A lot of folks put their bylines on my

 copy. But that's OK. That's what a PR guy does. If no one uses his

 copy, he's not doing his job.

But it was still strange to see bylines of writers from coast to coast

 on my copy. It was especially strange to click on my old paper -- the

New York Post -- and read my press release, virtually word for word,

 under some one else's byline.

But the important thing was Rockport Harbor. People asked me my gut

 feeling about him, and I told them from what I had seen and heard

on Sunday morning I was very pessimistic on his chances to make the Rebel. And, if he Rocky misses the Rebel, what chance would he have to make the

Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby?

Calvin Borel threw a party Sunday night celebrating his 4,000th career

 victory, and it was a downer. The racing community as a whole, and the

 Arkansas community in particular, was looking at the Rebel as the greatest

 thing since sliced crawfish, and, with no Rocky, the Rebel and Arkansas Derby lose most of its sex appeal.

"Six to weight weeks," trainers told me. "At a minimum"

So imagine my surprise when I got to the barn Monday and was told

 by trainer Servis that Rocky was doing much better, thanks to the

Epsom salts, hot water, and whatever magic potions he could find.

And this morning (Wednesday), the news was even better. Rocky was as

good as ever. He'll work seven-eighths on Friday morning with a jockey

(Willie Martinez) up for the first time, and the Rebel is a go.

All is well with the world again. Life is good.

Bob Holthus, who has been around since Eisenhower was president, told

me this morning that the Rebel -- a projected matchup of Rockport Harbor,

 Afleet Alex and Greater Good, the winner of the Southwest last

Saturday -- will be the greatest horse race in the 101-year history

 of Oaklawn Park.

It will also be the Race of the Year. It will be very hard for any Derby

 to top it. Especially if there's a convincing winner. If that happens, the

 Rebel winner goes to 4-5 for the Kentucky Derby.

Declan's Moon? He'd have to grow wings to handle Afleet Alex and/or

 Rockport Harbor. Twenty years from now, historians will wonder:

 "how was Declan's Moon the 2-year-old champion?

One story I love about Martinez:

One day at Churchill Downs, Martinez was riding a 4-5 shot. The horse

 led to deep stretch and fell apart. Finished off the board.

The distraught owner of the horse, in tears, approached Martinez.

Owner: "Willie, what happened? What went wrong?

Willie: "Boss...too many poles."

Oh, yes. One more thing about Oaklawn...

On Monday, Oaklawn attracted a crowd of 33,310. By comparison, the

 combined attendance at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Fair Grounds

was 19,000 and change.

How do you figure?

I have no idea.

I guess maybe because in New York, Miami, LA and New Orleans, racing

 is a necessary evil.

In Hot Springs, Arkansas, racing is a way of life.



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