04/21/2004 11:00PM

Rock Hard Ten solid go-against

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NEW YORK - The stakes schedule on the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby isn't exactly the black hole most might expect. For example, Saturday is California Gold Rush Day at Hollywood Park, where all 10 races are for California-breds, including six stakes worth a total of just over $1 million.

There are also lucrative stakes races at Lone Star Park, Hawthorne, and Bay Meadows. The feature at Lone Star is the $300,000 Texas Mile, while fillies and mares have the spotlight at Hawthorne in the $250,000 Sixty Sails Handicap. At Bay Meadows, turf horses will compete in the $200,000 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile.

But even though we are only a week away from the Derby, 3-year-olds are never far from center stage in the spring. As evidence, the main event on opening day at Churchill Downs is, as usual, the $100,000 Derby Trial. And the Derby Trial this year may actually serve a purpose it hasn't served in a number of years, which is to be a springboard to the Kentucky Derby. There is a slight chance that Rock Hard Ten will use the Derby Trial as a means of getting into the Derby, because a win in this race would give him enough graded stakes earnings to start next Saturday. If, that is, Value Plus passes on the Derby, as expected. Of course, Rock Hard Ten could also use the Derby Trial as a stepping-stone to the May 15 Preakness. Or, he could be scratched from the Derby Trial and either hope for more defections from the Derby, or train up to the Preakness.

Here are my three spotlight stakes:

Derby Trial

I'm torn. The idealistic part of me wants Rock Hard Ten to race in the Kentucky Derby without having to run in the Derby Trial. The Derby is the most important race for members of his age group, and after only three starts, Rock Hard Ten has already proven to be one of the best of his generation. The bettor in me, however, wants Rock Hard Ten in the Derby Trial. Whether he uses the Derby Trial as a launching pad to the Derby, or the Preakness, Rock Hard Ten will not be asked to empty his tank Saturday with much bigger goals so imminent. That makes him vulnerable at a short price.

My Derby Trial pick is Sir Shackleton. Sir Shackleton was very impressive winning last time out at Keeneland, making a bold three-wide move around the far turn, and sustaining that run to best an opponent who finished 13 1/2 lengths in front of the third finisher. Moreover, the 97 Beyer Speed Figure Sir Shackleton earned in that victory is in the ballpark with the 103 Beyer Rock Hard Ten earned in his sharp Santa Anita Derby effort, and can certainly be improved upon.

Texas Mile

Southern California shipper Kela, the selection, is going to think he died and went to heaven when he looks around and sees who he's in the starting gate with here. In his first start this year, Kela finished fourth in the San Carlos to Pico Central, who came back to win the Carter Handicap and confirm his position as the best one-turn horse in the country. Last time out in the San Bernardino, Kela was up against Dynever, who is one of the best older males in the country.

Kela meets no such company Saturday. Not only is this his easiest assignment in some time, Kela also figures to be primed for a peak performance third start off the layoff. And, after chasing California fractions, he may also find himself sitting a perfect trip off a pace contested by Pie N Burger, Yessirgeneralsir, and Taste of Paradise.

Khaled Stakes

Of all the California Gold Rush Stakes, this one has what may be the most vulnerable favorite in Lennyfromalibu. Lennyfromalibu is only a half-length away from boasting a five-race win streak, but he is a complete unknown at this 1 1/8-mile distance, and is worth trying to beat at low odds.

I like Continental Red, whose last race is a throwout. Because of a disastrous break from the gate, he spotted his opposition at least a 15-length head start. Late last year, Continental Red was a strong second in the San Gabriel Handicap to the high-class Redattore at this distance. An effort similar to that would make him boss here.