10/03/2005 12:00AM

Friendly rivals each feel he's got the best horse

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Neither Garrett Gomez (above) on Borrego or Gary Stevens would trade.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Go ahead and sing the praises of Saint Liam. Beat the drum for the miraculous return of Afleet Alex. And spend precious time wondering what Coolmore and Godolphin have in store. When it comes to speculation about the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, there are no rules, and no holds barred.

Still, after last weekend's wild activity had been digested, it was increasingly apparent that the outcome of America's richest horse race four weeks hence would depend upon the tactical decisions made by the two guys dressing in adjacent cubicles on the south wall of the Santa Anita jockeys' room - Gary Stevens and Garret Gomez.

Stevens had traveled west from his new Kentucky home for the mount on Rock Hard Ten in Saturday's Goodwood, then lingered through Sunday to ride the Santa Anita card. Gomez, who reigns as leader of the pack in Southern California these days, made a rare Belmont Park appearance Saturday - sweeping both the Vosburgh on Taste of Paradise and the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Borrego - then was back in action at Santa Anita on Sunday, winning the Lady's Secret Handicap aboard Healthy Addiction.

By late Sunday afternoon, Stevens was still waxing poetic over the performance of Rock Hard Ten as he pulled on his jeans and autographed a few photos, while Gomez, winding down before his shower, remained amazed at how easily Borrego had dispatched the opposition in New York.

"Those were quality horses," Gomez said. "So it would be hard to say that none of them ran their races. Maybe one or two, but not all of them."

"I guess the Classic is more than just a one-horse race after all," added Stevens, referring to the Saint Liam lobby. "A horse who needs two rabbits."

Ouch. Obviously, the Woodward still stung. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. sent out two

stablemates in that race to soften up Stevens and Commentator for Saint Liam. Such a strategy would seem to be useless in the face of the tractable Rock Hard Ten, or the stretch-running Borrego.

"Actually, his horse is kind of similar to mine," Gomez said, nodding toward Stevens.

"Very much similar," Stevens observed. "Rock likes to kick home, but he likes to kick after he has galloped a mile."

"They're both big-striding horses who just gallop along and build," Gomez said. "As the race goes along, they get stronger, rather than weaker, like most horses. They just keep blowing up bigger and bigger."

It has been a treat to watch these two colts attain an imposing measure of full maturity on the eve of their most important test. Like old schoolyard chums, up from the same California 'hoods, they have gone into the world to make their marks as serious animals on the verge of lasting notoriety.

Their jockeys have been along for the most important moments of the ride. Stevens was working Rock Hard Ten before the colt made his first start for his former trainer, Jason Orman. When Richard Mandella took over late last year, Stevens made sure he was still on board.

Gomez began riding Borrego for trainer Beau Greely last March and has never strayed, even when he was given the choice to ride Lava Man instead in the Californian at Hollywood Park. Gomez and Borrego ended up chasing Lava Man in both that race and the subsequent Hollywood Gold Cup.

"You always tend to second-guess yourself when that happens," Gomez said. "But at least you had the choice to make."

Borrego and Rock Hard Ten have crossed paths only twice, first in the 2004 Preakness Stakes, when they both languished in the long shadow of Smarty Jones, and then again last March in the Santa Anita Handicap, when Rock Hard Ten finished first and Borrego third.

By now, it is clear the Borrego of last winter has been transformed into a more polished professional. Based on his last two races - victories in the Pacific Classic and the Gold Cup - the colt is now more willing to engage instead of drop out of sight.

"His horse showed a different something yesterday," Stevens said, nodding toward Gomez. "I don't know if it was the racetrack or what, but he was up in the bridle, sitting where I would have been with my horse.

"They were rolling up on the lead and you were being taken along, it looked like," Stevens said, turning to Gomez. "That's the first time he has done that with you, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Gomez replied. "It was different. He kept himself more involved without my asking, and he was there when I needed him. Actually, he was there before I needed him. He put me in a position I had never been in with him before. I was a little leery when I started to move, because he had never been so close with so far to go, and I caught up with them so fast."

Caught them and passed them in a matter of strides. Watching the Gold Cup on television back at Santa Anita, Stevens put himself in Borrego's saddle.

"I was wondering what the big sonofagun would do when he's in front by three lengths at the quarter pole," Stevens said. "Would he pull himself up?"

"I was wondering, too," Gomez said. "I didn't want his mind to wander, so I shot him by the last horse and didn't give him a chance to think about it. That's when I took a peek back, and he had put about eight lengths on them just like that."

On Oct. 29 at Belmont, both Stevens and Gomez will be trying to win their first Breeders' Cup Classic. From the sounds they make, it is clear who they fear in terms of competition. But does their mutual admiration border on mount envy? In a word, would they trade?

"No," replied Gomez without a blink.

"No," countered Stevens, just as quick.

"In fact, here, stow that in your locker," Stevens added, tossing Gomez a handsome print of Rock Hard Ten winning the Goodwood. "I want you thinking about him."

"Great," Gomez said. "And that will be my view - when I look over my shoulder at the two of you."