07/12/2004 12:00AM

Big horse on best behavior

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is unreasonable to ask that a Thoroughbred racehorse possess the perfect mixture of ability, good health, and manners. It happens, but rarely, and when it does it usually has a name like Affirmed, Paseana, or Smarty Jones.

Ask any owner or trainer, however, and the answer always comes back the same. They'll take the ability every time. The rest can be negotiated.

Star Parade's talent was revealed to the Darrell Vienna stable at approximately the same rate as her temper. Mean enough to put her hoof through a wall, or a licensee, she snarls and growls and runs her eyes out every time, like she did on Sunday at Hollywood Park in winning the Milady Handicap.

Total Impact spent the first part of his American tour of duty in painful imitation of his name. When he wasn't training up a storm for Laura de Seroux, he was fighting back from a tibia fracture, a bout with colic, or an episode with "bone remodeling," which is a nice way of saying something was about to go terribly wrong. As a result, there were only fleeting glimpses of his true nature until Saturday, when he won the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup.

And then there is Rock Hard Ten, the heavy-metal headbanger of the 3-year-old concert crowd. With his power-builder frame and his soaring stride, he has had the look of rare eagles from the start . . . except for the start, as in starting gate, which he viewed with all the affection of a barn fire. When he finally got it right, like he did on Saturday in the Swaps Stakes, he was a sight to behold.

In the lead-up to the Swaps, played out in the pale aftertaste of the Triple Crown, Rock Hard Ten was remanded each morning to the custody of Gary "Towser" Brinson, Hollywood Park's veteran starter. The Rock had delayed the start of both the Preakness and the Belmont stakes, much to the dismay of trainer Jason Orman and his owners, Ernie Moody and Madeleine Paulson, and obviously needed the kind of tough love Brinson could deliver.

Thoroughbreds, most of them tending toward paranoid schizophrenia, have a deep-rooted fear of restraint, narrow enclosure, and loud noises. The starting gate requires them to hold still in a claustrophobic pen while men shout, horses squeal, and metal doors bang open and shut. There is also a loud bell, just for yucks.

Rock Hard Ten would have none of this. He was either too young, too proud or, at more than 17 hands, way too big to tolerate such psychological havoc. By the time he hit the national stage, his attitude toward the gate was becoming ingrained. The hard-working gate crews in Baltimore and New York did well to get him in and on his way.

"I suppose that's one way to get national TV exposure," said Moody, the video poker magnate who sports a cap that reads "Rock Hard X - Size Does Matter" whenever the big horse runs.

"It's even more pressure, though, when you're out there at 3-5," Moody added. "You know everyone will take a shot at you if they can."

The Swaps field figured to be the least of Rock Hard Ten's worries, though. Nothing in California can muster his combination of speed, stamina, and intimidating presence. Their only real chance was a total meltdown at the gate.

Brinson was determined not to let that happen. As Rock Hard Ten approached the barrier, set up right in front of the grandstand crowd, the starter took the shank himself. They took a few steps together, then Rocky balked. Brinson gave the shank a jerk and backed him up. They took a few steps forward, stopped, and - with a loop in the line - Brinson hollered, "Back!" Rock Hard Ten backed up, just like he was told.

"I could see his mind was wandering," Brinson said. "I had to get his attention on me."

Mission accomplished. Once focused, Rock Hard Ten allowed Brinson to lead him into his starting stall without hesitation. A round of appreciative applause broke out from the stands in tribute to Brinson's performance.

"That was us leading the applause," Moody said.

Quite by chance, Rock Hard Ten got to stand quietly in the gate, all by himself, for several minutes while longshot Brands Hatch had his bridle reattached. After that, the Swaps was anticlimax. Rock Hard Ten did what he was supposed to do, winning by 3 3/4 lengths. His future, once again, seems limitless, especially now that the starting gate is his friend. Sort of.

"You hate to see a horse get into a wrestling match at the gate," Brinson told a grateful Orman after the race. "They can leave a lot of their race right there. If he can learn to load without a fight, you can be taking him all over the country, and you don't have to hold your breath every time he comes up to the gate. After a while that can eat your stomach out."

Brinson wasn't about to declare "mission accomplished" and move on. From his end, he knows that Rock Hard Ten is still a work in progress.

"That's one for me today," Brinson said, "but he could turn the deal around on me next time. I'll have him down at Del Mar, so me and him will hook it up again."