03/07/2005 1:00AM

Rock Hard Ten goes bang

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Sorry, what was that question again? Something about Rock Hard Ten squandering his early promise? Neglecting to win every race he had ever entered? Failing to circumnavigate the globe without refueling?

Were this a presidential press briefing, the man at the podium would insist that such issues are old news, perhaps even a "non-story," and that the administration has moved on. Forgive the rest of us, though, if we wallow for a few sweet moments in the past, or at least as far back as last Saturday.

As the star of a day to remember, Rock Hard Ten had real live racing fans on their feet and cheering. It was a reassuring sound, honestly delivered by an audience both entertained and impressed by a horse who just might be one of the ones.

But that's getting ahead of the game. There is no real reason to anoint Rock Hard Ten as the second coming just yet, any more than there was logical justification to doubt his head, heart, or lungs going into the 68th running of the Santa Anita Handicap.

In truth, there were a lot of things Rock Hard Ten had never done before last Saturday. He had never run against any horse foaled in a year other than 2001. He had never won three races in a row. He had never won a race at a mile and a quarter. For that matter, he had never stood on his head and whistled "Dixie."

Only the very best horses, though, can stand the gaff of a hard-pressed classic campaign and then successfully reinvent themselves at the age of 4. More often than not, talented 3-year-olds are sacrificed on the altar of the Triple Crown, never to be heard from again. Rock Hard Ten could have easily been one of them.

Ernie Moody, the video-poker titan behind Action Gaming who is Rock Hard Ten's proud co-owner with breeder Madeleine Paulson, conceded that the human factor may have pushed the big colt a bridge too far in 2004. The sobering results of the Preakness, the Belmont, and the Haskell may have been all a quick study like Moody needed to get religion.

In comments after the race, Moody sounded as conservative as Paul Mellon when he talked about resisting the temptation of the Dubai World Cup for the sake of the horse, and keeping him in California all winter so that Rock Hard Ten could establish a "comfort level."

Sitting nearby, Richard Mandella's heart skipped a beat as he listened to a patron utter such sentiments. Few things stop a good horse cold faster than the ego and blind ambition of the people who pay the bills, and here was a brand new client practically channeling the classic teachings of Allen Jerkens.

"The horse still has a few quirks of his own," Mandella said. "Nothing serious, but just enough to make you think he wasn't quite the old pro he has a chance to be. After this race, though, I can see why you might think of him as an old pro."

Now, except for the whistling, Rock Hard Ten can start a whole new to-do list. He will need to emerge from a brief freshening as good as or better than he has been at Santa Anita, where he also won the Malibu and the Strub. He will need to win a major race or two outside of California. And, at some point, he will need to deal with Ghostzapper, reigning Horse of the Year.

"That's okay with me," said Gary Stevens. "There's no horse out there I would run from."

When it comes to the development of Rock Hard Ten, Stevens has been able to put Mandella's every subtle request into action. Most significant in terms of the Big Cap was their work in company with stablemate Congrats on Feb. 23, over a wet track 10 days prior to the race, after which Congrats was given high marks at the expense of Rock Hard Ten.

"That work was misinterpreted by more than a few people," Stevens said. "The point was not to beat Congrats. Richard didn't even want me to gallop out all that strong. Everything Richard does is for a specific reason, and one thing he does not want to do is uncork this horse when he doesn't have to.

"Look at this picture," Stevens went on, pointing to the photo of Rock Hard Ten on the cover of Saturday's Daily Racing Form. "That's his blowout from the other day. Look at his right ear cocked back at me and his eye rolled my way. He's waiting for my signal, and he knows when I move my hands above the yolk" - indicating the narrow leather strap running around the base of the neck - "then it's time to go. With him, all I really need to do is roll my knuckles and he's gone, and with an acceleration like few horses I've ever ridden."

Rock Hard Ten was gone, baby, gone around the turn and into the stretch of the Big Cap, with Congrats giving full-blooded pursuit. At the end, nearly two lengths in front of Congrats, The Rock was looking around, ears up and disappointed the game had ended.

"Could he have gone around again?" Stevens said, smiling at the thought. "I guess so. When he came back, he wasn't even breathing hard."

But he was breathtaking.