07/20/2004 12:00AM

Hard Buck facing stiffest test

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NEW YORK - Hard Buck is resting comfortably in his temporary home at Newmarket as he prepares for the most difficult assignment of his life at Ascot on Saturday.

A Brazilian-bred son of Spend a Buck, Hard Buck is in England to take on the best older horses in Europe in the $1.4 million King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, the midsummer equivalent of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. His participation in the 1 1/2-mile Group 1 contest is part of Ascot's ongoing effort to attract foreign-trained horses to their big races. In choosing the King George for Hard Buck, trainer Kenny McPeek could hardly have found a bigger race in the world.

Hard Buck's fifth-place finish in the United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 3 would have dissuaded most trainers from sending a horse 3,000 miles across the sea to face the likes of Ascot's 1 1/2-mile track record holder, Doyen, but Hard Buck is a tested international traveler.

A 1 1/4-mile Group 1 winner in Brazil - where he also finished second behind Pico Central in a Group 1 mile on turf - Hard Buck made his second trip to Dubai in March and finished a close second to Polish Summer in the Dubai Sheema Classic.

McPeek blamed the firm ground at Monmouth for Hard Buck's lackluster effort last time. With the going at Ascot likely to be on the good side of firm, he should be in his element, ground-wise at least.

He worked well around a right-handed bend at Newmarket on Monday for assistant trainer Hanne Jorgensen, and Gary Stevens, currently on honeymoon as he takes a brief hiatus from his job as Andre Fabre's number-one rider, will be given a leg up by McPeek, who is scheduled to depart for England on Thursday.

But there are more than just two right-handed bends awaiting Hard Buck at Ascot, where the last mile of 1 1/2-mile course is virtually all uphill. In addition to the even-money favorite Doyen, Hard Buck must contend with seven Group 1 or Grade 1 winners in Sulamani, Warrsan, Gamut, Powerscourt, Phoenix Reach, Lunar Sovereign, and Vallee Enchantee.

Should Hard Buck acquit himself well on Saturday, McPeek has plans to send him to Germany for the Grosser Preis von Baden, which could serve as a prep for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.