05/04/2004 12:00AM

No second shutout

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Rock Hard Ten (left) went to Churchill Downs for Derby Week but was denied a spot in the race because of an earnings shortfall.

Rock Hard Ten was training as impressively as any horse the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, but could not crack the starting lineup because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes races. Of the 22 horses who were entered in the Derby last Wednesday, he was 22nd on the list.

But when the scene switches to Pimlico for the 129th Preakness Stakes on May 15, figures to be no worse than the fourth choice, and perhaps as high as the second choice, in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

It is not just the public that holds Rock Hard Ten in high regard. So too does jockey Gary Stevens, who has committed to fly over from France in order to ride Rock Hard Ten in the Preakness.

In just three starts, Rock Hard Ten has proven to be among the most talented of this year's crop of 3-year-olds. And he furthered that impression on Tuesday, with a strong seven-furlong workout at Churchill Downs that dazzled exercise rider Joe Deegan.

"He's the real deal this one, huh?" Deegan said. "He was going twelves like it was nothing."

Rock Hard Ten breezed seven furlongs in 1:26 on a track that was rated fast. His trainer, Jason Orman, said Rock Hard Ten completed his final three furlongs in 35.80 seconds.

"He went off easy, and finished well, which is what we wanted," Orman said from Louisville, Ky. "It was as good as his last work, maybe better. He needed to work a strong seven-eighths. He'll be going into the race not having run in six weeks, so we wanted him to do a little bit more. I wasn't as much interested in speed as distance.

"He worked well, and he came back well. We're right on schedule," Orman said.

Rock Hard Ten will have another shorter work next week, on Monday or Tuesday, then will fly to Maryland on Wednesday, Orman said.

Orman has a composed manner that never was betrayed during Derby Week. Despite not getting into the Derby, Orman displayed no frustration. And after 18 horses ran over a sloppy track on Saturday, he now thinks Rock Hard Ten's situation might have worked out for the best.

"It wasn't just the track," Orman said. "He had had only three starts. With the rain, it looked like a lot of horses didn't handle the track. To run a mile and a quarter off just three starts and not handle the track, it might have knocked him out. Then again, he might have handled it. I just think everything works out for the best."

Rock Hard Ten, a powerful, imposing son of Kris S., won the first two starts of his career. In the Santa Anita Derby, he crossed the wire second, but was disqualified to third because he interfered with Imperialism late in the lane. The difference in purse money between second and third was the difference between him running in the Derby or remaining in the barn.

Stevens had been scheduled to come to Louisville if Rock Hard Ten made the Derby, but he remained in France last weekend. With the Preakness field shaping up decidedly smaller than the Derby, there is no chance Rock Hard Ten will be excluded from the Preakness, which has a maximum of 14 runners.

"Gary was always going to come back to the Derby until we knew he was not going to get in," Orman said.

Smarty Jones, the Derby winner, should be favored again in the Preakness. But the second through fourth choices could fall any number of ways between Lion Heart, the Derby runner-up, Rock Hard Ten, and Eddington, the third-place finisher in the Wood Memorial, who also was excluded from the Derby because of insufficient earnings.

Smarty Jones left Louisville on Tuesday and returned to Philadelphia Park, where he began his career and where he will train up to the Preakness. His trainer, John Servis, said Smarty Jones would not return to training until he got back to Philadelphia Park.

Lion Heart only had one day off following the Derby. He jogged briefly on Monday at Keeneland, and had a longer jog on Tuesday, according to his trainer, Patrick Biancone.

"Yesterday he had a nice jog, and today he jogged a mile and a quarter," Biancone said from Lexington, Ky. "I'm very happy with how he is doing. I don't know if he will breeze before he travels next Wednesday, but he will at least stretch his legs."

Preachinatthebar, whom trainer Bob Baffert is considering for the Preakness, worked a half-mile in 47.60 seconds on Tuesday at Churchill Downs.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee