As much as everything went right last year for John Servis heading into the Kentucky Derby with Smarty Jones, everything couldn't have gone much more wrong this time around for the trainer as he tries to pull off an encore performance with Rockport Harbor.
The talk that Servis might have a new Smarty Jones began early as Rockport Harbor completed an undefeated 2-year-old campaign with an electrifying victory by a neck in the prestigious Remsen Stakes in New York.
Trainer John Servis, shown in 2004 with Smarty Jones, needs a good race by Rockport Harbor in the Lexington Stakes to make the Kentucky Derby.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Wintering in Arkansas at Oaklawn Park, Servis, who is based in Philadelphia, mapped out a route for his new star identical to the path Smarty Jones took to Churchill Downs.
The spring prep races were to include the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby. Yet now, following one setback after another, Servis finds himself running Rockport Harbor this afternoon in the Grade II $325,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, a race considered the last, desperate gasp for horses trying to qualify for the Derby.
Trouble started over the winter with an injured hind hoof and snowballed -- an injured front foot followed early this month by a giant blood clot in the right side of Rockport Harbor's neck.
"It's been frustrating," Servis said this week, "I think more because it's been things that are out of his control."
Instead of three prep races for the Derby, Rockport Harbor has had one heading into the Lexington, a second-place finish to Greater Good in the Rebel in which he led to the wire before being caught.
Last year, Servis often appeared extremely conservative and overprotective of Smarty Jones. He emerged from his victory in the Preakness, on the cusp of a Triple Crown, saying the colt might not run in the Belmont Stakes if he didn't appear up to it. Yet despite Rockport Harbor's repeated setbacks, Servis has pressed on knowing his horse might not be fit enough to run the demanding 1 1/4-mile Derby.
"I think he can be very competitive in the Kentucky Derby because he's an exceptional horse, but he's going to have to be 100 percent to do that," Servis said. "And if I'm not happy with where he is, then we'll regroup and we'll map out another plan.
"I want to get [owner Rick] Porter to the Derby, and that's my main goal. With that being said, he's taken a lot of the pressure off of me because right after the Rebel he told me, 'Listen, I want a good horse and I want a good 4-year-old. And if he's not ready for the Derby I don't want to sacrifice him and just throw him out there.' "
Rockport Harbor, to be ridden by Smarty Jones's jockey Stewart Elliott, is the 9-5 morning-line favorite in the Lexington. He will face six others trying to validate themselves, including Sort It Out, Bob Baffert's last chance to get to the Derby, and Going Wild, who lost to Bellamy Road in the Wood Memorial by 41 lengths.
The Lexington has produced many Kentucky Derby entrants -- 32 since the first Lexington in 1981 -- but only Swale and Charismatic emerged to find greater glory at Churchill Downs.
Ritchey Awash With Offers
After Afleet Alex shook off his debacle in the Rebel Stakes by crushing the field in the Arkansas Derby, agents for many big-time jockeys came calling on trainer Tim Ritchey, looking to ride the horse in the Kentucky Derby.
Ritchey, who lives in Elkton, Md., and races out of Delaware Park, has never been to the Derby in a long career. He has been riding Jeremy Rose, 26, on most of his horses since the jockey turned pro in 2001.
Rose rode Afleet Alex in his first seven races winning big stakes races at Saratoga and finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But after Afleet Alex won his 3-year-old debut with Rose, Ritchey replaced the rider with Eclipse Award winner John Velazquez for the Rebel.
They finished a disastrous sixth -- attributed it to a lung infection -- and Rose was back on for the victory in the Arkansas Derby. Ritchey was noncommittal about who would ride in the Kentucky Derby before finally giving Rose the mount this week.
"I had offers from other riders, obviously, and I would be remiss if I didn't discuss it with the owners," Ritchey said.
Velazquez will ride Bandini in the Derby for Todd Pletcher. When asked if he would have gone back to the proven star for Afleet Alex were he still available, Ritchey said: "There you go. I don't answer 'if' questions. I have a rider who has won $1.3 million on the horse. [Jeremy] will ride very intelligently. He's very determined and he has all the confidence in the world in my horse."
Rose, who also lives in Elkton, of course, is thrilled to have his first Derby mount.
"They go for the people who have been there and can get the job done at that level," he said of trainers who switch to more high-profile riders for the Derby. "But it's one of those things also where you have to start sometime. . . . It's a million-dollar purse, but you still just turn left."