Updated on 09/17/2011 9:45PM

Rock Hard Ten looms large

Good Reward, winner of the Hollywood Derby last year, trains on Thursday at Santa Anita in preparation for Saturday's Grade 2 Strub Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. - There were occasions last year when Rock Hard Ten appeared on the verge of breaking through to racing's highest level.

He was considered a threat to Smarty Jones in the Preakness, but finished a well-beaten second. After winning the Swaps Stakes in July, he was favored for the Haskell at Monmouth, but finished sixth.

Rock Hard Ten ended the year with an exciting come-from-behind win in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26. Though a top-level race, the Malibu was essentially a prep for his current campaign, which continues on Saturday in the Grade 2, $300,000 Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita.

"I don't see any reason why he won't improve a little," Mandella said.

The is the ninth race on a 10-race program that begins at noon Pacific. The program includes the $100,000 Sham Stakes for 3-year-olds over 1 1/8 miles.

The Strub has drawn a field of 10, including Castledale, the winner of the 2004 Santa Anita Derby; Good Reward, the winner of the 2004 Hollywood Derby; Love of Money, the winner of the 2004 Pennsylvania Derby; and Imperialism, who was third in the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

Castledale is not a definite starter. Trainer Jeff Mullins said that Castledale will also be entered for Sunday's $250,000 San Antonio Handicap.

Rock Hard Ten was held out of the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes in January in favor of the 1 1/8-mile Strub. In recent weeks, Mandella has raved about Rock Hard Ten's condition, and praised the colt's win the Malibu. Rallying from last, Rock Hard Ten made up three lengths in the final furlong of that seven-furlong race to win by a half-length.

"It didn't surprise me that he won," Mandella said. "He trained like he could do that. To let him settle and make a big run, it was a nice prep, a nice setup."

Owned by Madeleine Paulson and Ernie Moody, Rock Hard Ten was making his first start for trainer Richard Mandella in the Malibu, having previously been trained by Jason Orman.

Rock Hard Ten raced close to the front last year, but has been effective as a closer.

There should be ample pace in the Strub. Love of Money, unraced since finishing sixth as the favorite in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in October, has speed. So does Diamond Fury, the winner of an allowance race last month, and Skipaslew, who was third in the San Fernando Stakes.

Imperialism, winless in his last seven starts, and Good Reward, who has yet to win a stakes on dirt, need a quick pace.

A longshot coming off a victory is Hendrix, who won an allowance race at Golden Gate Fields last month. Owned by Paul Reddam and trained by Craig Dollase, Hendrix is seeking his first stakes win.

"He got some confidence back up north," Dollase said. "We're hoping that will make a difference."

Good Reward, whose Hollywood Derby win came on turf, is trained in Florida by Shug McGaughey. The chance at a final start against only 4-year-olds appealed to the trainer.

"Without any good options in Florida, I thought it would be a good option on the dirt," McGaughey said. "If he performs well, it would open some doors and enhance his value as a stud."

Good Reward rallied from eighth to pull a 16-1 upset in the Hollywood Derby on Nov. 28, his second consecutive stakes. The switch to the main track is a concern, McGaughey said.

"Down here over the new track, he's trained well on it," McGaughey said, referring to Gulfstream Park. "He's had some pretty quick breezes. Who knows whether that will take to the afternoons? He's done very well."

While Good Reward has excellent form, bettors will make Rock Hard Ten a strong favorite.

"I think he'll run really good," Mandella said. "I'm afraid to say any more."

Is Mandella really afraid, or just excited about the yearlong prospects of a colt who could play a major role in the handicap division?

"I'm afraid I'll jinx it," he said.

The field

Strub Stakes
Purse: $300,000; Grade 2; 1 1/8 miles

1HendrixP. Valenzuela11720-1
2SkipaslewK. Desormeaux11712-1
3Good RewardC. Nakatani1235-1
4CastledaleJ. Valdivia11912-1
5Love of MoneyV. Espinoza1233-1
6My CreedT. Baze11730-1
7Rock Hard TenG. Stevens1217-5
8ImperialismA. Solis1196-1
9Diamond FuryC. Fusilier11720-1
10With DistinctionJ. Court11730-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly