03/22/2004 1:00AM

Coming soon: Life in fast lane

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - Jason Orman knelt in the shavings of stall 16 in Santa Anita's barn 1C and carefully applied thick standing bandages to a set of legs that more closely resembled a stand of tall pines.

"There's not much you can make him do," Orman said in answer to a question about handling the beast that towered above. "The other day, when he was getting shoes, he decided he wasn't going to pick up his foot. So we just waited until he changed his mind."

Welcome to the world of Rock Hard Ten.

It's his world, no doubt, and the rest of us are little more than curious sounds and shadows. This 3-year-old mountain of a Thoroughbred, this dark bay semi in disguise, is one of the most intriguing colts on the California scene right now, with two wins in two starts and nothing but untapped promise in the tank.

Rock Hard Ten stands at more than 17 hands, according to Orman's estimate. For those who need a refresher, that would be 5-foot-8 at the point of the withers, which leaves another foot and a half before reaching his ample forelock and his long, busy ears. He spends most of his day staring out of a high window at the back of his stall. A very high window.

With such dimensions, Rock Hard Ten could dwarf even a generously built colt such as Wimbledon, winner of the Louisiana Derby, or the golden boy Lion Heart, a beefcake from all angles.

Compared to those horses, however, Rock Hard Ten is completely untested. That should change on April 3 when, carrying the hopes of his owners, Ernie Moody and Madeleine Paulson, Rock Hard Ten takes on the cream of the California glamor division in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. After that, if the Rock lives up to both his looks and his potential, the relatively quiet world of Jason Orman is sure to explode.

"I was sitting with Eoin Harty not long ago, watching agent after agent come by and ask him if he had horses their jocks could work," Orman said, referring to Sheikh Mohammed's main man in California. " 'Just wait,' Eoin said. 'They'll find you.' "

They have. Gary Stevens has ridden Rock Hard Ten in both his starts, guiding him around with barely a nudge. Stevens, however, left town Sunday to ride in Dubai and then take up residence in France, where he will be riding first call this season for leading trainer Andre Fabre.

Such news is like red meat to jocks' agents, but Orman is taking his sudden popularity in stride. In fact, Orman has been assured by Stevens that the rider will be able to return for the Santa Anita Derby mount, and it was Stevens in the irons last Saturday morning when Rock Hard Ten dismissed seven furlongs in an effortless 1:24 and change. The work was in company, but not for long.

"I really can't find anything to go with him," Orman lamented. "The idea was to break him off behind the other horse, but he was alongside him pretty quick. You don't really want to fight him, just to get him back. No real point in that. He's got such a high cruising speed, and he does it with so little effort."

Orman, 35, is a native of Calgary who was raised a racetrack brat, when he wasn't playing hockey. He learned the racing game from his father, Mike Orman, who now runs the farm operation for Moody and Paulson.

Mike Orman's best-known runner of the last 10 years was the colt Lake George, a minor stakes winner who finished third in the 1995 San Felipe Stakes to Afternoon Deelites. Jason accompanied Lake George to Woodbine for a run at the 1995 Molson Million, but they had no luck and were well beaten by Peaks and Valleys.

Orman's world broadened considerably in 1998 when he joined his father for a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia, training for Prince Ahmed Salman. Not long after that, Jason's passport was in action again as assistant to California emigr? Tim Pinfield in Singapore. The racing world there had a rarefied air, populated by an array of swashbuckling international entrepreneurs. Orman managed to keep his feet on the ground by playing with a local ex-pat hockey team and even coaching a native Singapore squad.

"I guess any time you get enough Canadians together, there has to be hockey," Orman said.

Compared to the Kentucky Derby trail, any challenges presented by Saudi Arabia or Singapore are a breeze. Orman, a Triple Crown rookie, is bracing for the onslaught to come.

For now, though, there are more quiet moments than not, like feeding time last Sunday afternoon, when Orman took a moment to step back and admire Rock Hard Ten.

"I know we'd be bucking all kinds of history if we end up trying the Kentucky Derby after just three starts," he said. "And you don't like to ask a young horse to do more than he's prepared to do.

"After he won his second race, Mr. Moody told me the Derby is not worth winning if we have to push the horse to get there, and that's good to know," Orman added. "But sometimes, it's the horse that takes you instead of the other way around."