12/27/2004 1:00AM

Rock Hard Ten back in business

Rock Hard Ten, with Gary Stevens up, came back to score a half-length victory in Sunday's seven-furlong Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Children of a divorce can be depressed and withdrawn, a real problem at school, often lashing out in desperate response to all sorts of helpless frustrations and inner demons.

Rock Hard Ten, on the other hand, seems to be adjusting quite well.

After being wrenched from his childhood home in the small, private stable of Jason Orman, Rock Hard Ten made his first start for Hall of Famer Richard Mandella in Santa Anita's opening-day on Sunday afternoon. The result was a stunning victory under difficult circumstances, made all the more satisfying by the generous ovation granted the colt and his jockey, Gary Stevens, as they returned to the winner's circle in solitary splendor.

No longer fussy, distracted, and emotionally immature, Rock Hard Ten answered every signal from Stevens while improvising a few moves of his own. As a result, Rock Hard Ten overcame a layoff of nearly four months, a bad start, a crowded field, and finally a phalanx of red shadow rolls from the Doug O'Neill barn, determined to spoil the show. After seven furlongs in 1:21.89, the official winning margin was a half-length over Lava Man, whose stablemates Harvard Avenue and Perfect Moon were mere noses away.

"Second, third, and fourth in a Grade 1 stake?" said O'Neill, still a little dazed by what had just transpired. "I guess we'll take that, especially since the winner was geared down at the wire."

Geared down and looking for more. With his spectacular return, Rock Hard Ten jumped immediately to the head of the coming West Coast class of older runners primed for 2005. In Mandella's world, the colt has the look of a genuine replacement part for the retired Pleasantly Perfect, while giving Stevens and his chronically sore knees a reason to keep showing up.

It was Stevens who first sang the praises of Rock Hard Ten last February, when he won his debut at Santa Anita, then came right back to win a two-turn allowance.

"He was still mentally immature back then," Stevens said. "And he had a lot thrown at him in a short period of time. In many ways, he reminds me a lot of a black version of Point Given. They're both very big horses and tremendous athletes, but you never want to fall asleep on them, because they can have you on the ground so quick you won't know what happened."

It is to the credit of both Rock Hard Ten and Orman that the colt was able to survive his first season of racing. Rock Hard Ten made his third start in the Santa Anita Derby (disqualified from second to third), his fourth start in the Preakness (a distant second to Smarty Jones), and his fifth start in the Belmont Stakes (a toasted fifth). It was kind of like tackling the Formula One circuit right out of driver's ed.

Still, owners Ernie Moody and Madeleine Paulson were anxious to keep testing their big colt at the top of the game. After winning the Swaps Stakes at home in California, Rock Hard Ten was put on the road again and finally hit a wall in the Haskell on a muggy day at Monmouth Park. His season was over and it was time for a break, but by early November, Orman was pleased with the colt's condition and was looking to the Malibu as the right race at the right time for a comeback.

The handover took place Nov. 9.

"Mr. Moody called me and said they wanted to make a change," said Orman, 36. "He said they wanted someone with more experience. And certainly Richard is a great trainer. It was tough, but it's their horse, and they can do what they think is best for him. Obviously it hurts, because we put a lot of time into the horse. But those things happen."

And happen, and happen. Team owners fire coaches all the time, and it is no different in the racing world, where trainers and jockeys often are rendered interchangeable and disposable. In a game based on the patronage system, you either grow a tough hide or catch the first bus home.

"Jason's a class act and a good friend," Stevens said. "I remember the day I got a call from Richard asking me to come out and work the horse. I was having lunch with Jason at the time, and I felt pretty bad for him."

Orman was in no mood to be pitied, as Stevens was quick to learn.

"He looked me in the eye and said, 'Hey, let me tell you something. If they'd wanted to change jocks and I still had him, you'd have been off this son of a gun in a heartbeat. So don't worry about it.' "

Orman still handles a trio of runners for Moody's Mercedes Stable, although none of them has so far shown the promise of Rock Hard Ten. Few do. Not surprisingly, Orman was among the crowd of 31,639 at Santa Anita on opening day, bearing witness to Rock Hard Ten's emergence as a true star.

"Gary rode him great and he ran great," Orman said. "It looks like he's going to be a very nice horse. But I guess we all knew that."