The clash of undefeated 2-year olds in Saturday's Remsen (gr. II) lived up to billing when Rockport Harbor dug in to earn a neck victory over Galloping Grocer in a stretch battle that drew a rare shout of applause from the Aqueduct grandstand.
Fox Hill Farm's Rockport Harbor's victory was his fourth in a row, taking in stride the adjustment to two-turn racing by beating his rivals to the first turn with speed and relaxing under the hands of Stewart Elliott.
Elliott waited until the final furlong to ask the son of Unbridled's Song
for his best. Rockport Harbor's Philadelphia Park roots and his trainer, John Servis will draw inevitable comparisons to Smarty Jones, who earlier this year won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both gr. I) for Servis and Elliott while still undefeated.
"For a 2-year old to run a mile and an eighth like that, that is a huge race," Servis said. "This is the first time he really had to dig in. That will help him a lot."
Rockport Harbor was clearly faster than Galloping Grocer, and the latter was floated wide into the clubhouse turn. Soon the race was reduced to those two, and after Rockport Harbor had run six furlongs in 1:11, less than a half-length separated him from Galloping Grocer.
"I kept letting my horse out," Elliott explained. "(Galloping Grocer) was there and he wasn't going away."
With Elliott still riding confidently, Galloping Grocer chased Rockport Harbor to the top of the stretch and the leader continued to maintain the narrow advantage at every jump.
"At the three-sixteenths pole I said, 'I'm going to win this,'" John Velazquez, who rode Galloping Grocer, said. "I spanked him and he switched back to his left lead. He started looking at the horse inside again."
Leaving the eighth pole, Elliott finally put Rockport Harbor to a left-handed whip and he extended his lead to a neck under the wire.
"It's hard for me to tell whether there was more horse because he was running enough just to stay in front," Elliott said. "This was the first time he was hooked. He had to run and he did. He's done everything we've asked him to do."
Galloping Grocer had not received any semblance of a challenge in three starts against New York-breds. In the Remsen he proved himself a worthy adversary to Rockport Harbor, reacting well to sitting off the pace and extending himself through the long stretch battle. His connections reacted gleefully despite taking their first defeat with the colt, sure to be named champion New York-bred juvenile.
"I was real happy with his race," trainer, Dominick Schettino said. "This was a much stiffer test than what he was running against. This race will do him a lot of good."
Said Velazquez, "We've never really had to squeeze him and spank him or get serious with him. He needs to learn. I thought he ran a great race."
The only negative fallout was when Servis reported an apparent injury to Rockport Harbor's right hind.
"Somebody ran up on his back end and his back right-quarter was just hanging," Servis said. "This was going to be his last race until next year anyway. The way it looks, we're probably going to have to sew it up. It was pretty nasty looking."
Rockport Harbor is heading to Arkansas where Smarty Jones earlier this year reeled off impressive victories in the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby (gr. II). Asked to compare the two colts, Servis said of Rockport Harbor, "He's got big shoes to fill."
Killenaule finished third, followed by Father Weist and Pavo. The time of 1:48 4/5 was the second fastest Remsen since the race was made 1 1/8 miles in 1973.