Even-money favorite Rockport Harbor, making his first start in more than nine months, put away the challenge of Cougar Cat in the final eighth of a mile to post his first win since 2004 in the $100,000 Essex Handicap (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park Saturday.
The John Servis-trained Rockport Harbor was one of the favorites on the early Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail last year, but leg problems prevented him from showing his ability. After a sixth-place finish, beaten by more than 20 lengths, in the Lexington (gr. II) at Keeneland in April, he was sent to the sidelines.
The front-running 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song
returned to action with a vengeance under regular rider Stewart Elliott, completing the 1 1/16-mile Essex in 1:47 3/5 on a track labeled good while winning in a drive by 2 1/4 lengths.
The victory was the first for the $470,000 Keeneland yearling since the gray colt won the Remsen (gr. II) as a 2-year-old in November 2004. In his only other start besides the Lexington since the Remsen, Rockport Harbor was second, beaten a half-length by Essex foe Greater Good, in the Rebel (gr. III) at Oaklawn.
Rockport Harbor earned $60,000 for owner Fox Hill Farms and improved his record to five wins in seven tries. His bankroll reached $320,300.
Rockport Harbor broke a little to his inside and steadied briefly but rolled up to show the way into the first turn with Cougar Cat and Robby Albarado tracking. Rockport Harbor completed an easy quarter-mile in :24 and opened up by four lengths with a pedestrian half in :48. The colt continued to control the pace by two lengths after six furlongs in 1:14 as Cougar Cat, coming off two Louisiana Downs sprint scores, pounced coming off the turn. Rockport Harbor was headed in the stretch but refused to fold on the inside and began to edge away again near the furlong marker. He paid $4, $3.80, and $3.20.
"It's a relief to get this one over with," said Servis. "I guess they just let him go, figuring he'd come back. But he showed 'em the old Rocky. The race reminded me of the Remsen when Galloping Grocer got to him, and he held him off."
Rockport Harbor is scheduled to make his next start in the $150,000 Razorback Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. III) at Oaklawn on March 12.
Thunder Mission ($9.40, $5.60), always close under Corey Lanerie, rallied for second by a neck over Silver Axe ($6.60) and James Graham.
Cougar Cat, the second choice in the field of eight, faded to fourth, followed by Greater Good, Matched, Real Dandy, and Jonesboro.