05/28/2004 12:00AM

Rock Hard Ten will keep up with this Jones


PHOENIX - Is it going to be Sham or Alydar or Touch Gold revisited in next week's Belmont Stakes? I can envision the Belmont of any those horses for the highly promising Rock Hard Ten come Saturday.

In his second-place finish to Secretariat in 1973, Sham ran the second-fastest Kentucky Derby ever, and then the second-fastest Preakness ever, and had nothing to show for it. His connections decided that in the Belmont they weren't going to wait - they were going to take the race right to Secretariat. It didn't work. Sham ran himself into the ground and was eased, while Secretariat put on his famous tour de force. Sham never raced again.

In 1978, Alydar was at a tactical disadvantage against Affirmed in the Derby and Preakness. His connections attempted to fix that, hooking Affirmed by the first turn in the Belmont. What transpired was a classic, but for Alydar the result was still the same, a loss.

Touch Gold in 1997 had better luck. Many handicappers thought he should have won the Preakness, when he went to his nose at the start, then had traffic in the lane, yet still was defeated by less than two lengths. In the Belmont, Touch Gold broke alertly, but was taken back off the pace. It proved a wise move by rider Chris McCarron. Touch Gold settled, came out and around, and foiled Silver Charm's Triple Crown bid.

Rock Hard Ten figures to follow in the footsteps of one of these three warriors, and one of the primary reasons comes in the choice of jockey - Pat Valenzuela. Valenzuela isn't coming aboard for the patient approach. Rock Hard Ten's connections aren't looking for him to bide his time and then try and go and get Smarty Jones. The naming of Valenzuela to ride, replacing Gary Stevens, who is in Europe, tells me one thing - they're out to get Smarty. Valenzuela hails from the most aggressive branch on the riding tree, which traces from Eddie Arcaro, through Manny Ycaza and Angel Cordero, to P. Val.

It doesn't hurt that Rock Hard Ten has enormous talent, and while Smarty whipped him in the Preakness, remember that was Rock Hard Ten's first race in six weeks, and Stevens took a patient approach. It was the right thing to do first time in a big race off a layoff. But now, Rock Hard Ten is more battle-tested. Now is the time to go after Smarty. Valenzuela doesn't take a hold; he lets a horse go. But he doesn't just let the horse go nuts; he allows him to find a comfort zone. Rock Hard Ten is a strong galloper, so there's no reason to believe he's got to be some come-from-the-clouds closer. In his maiden win, he was on top of six furlongs in 1:09 and change. In other words, he has speed.

Besides, save for a few Belmonts, such as the ones won by Creme Fraiche and Victory Gallop, the Belmont is not usually won late. The 12-furlong Belmont usually is won in furlongs 9 to 11, on the far turn. The winner is the one who puts himself in the right spot to win at that point. The winner rarely is still charging late to just get up.

This fits the Valenzuela riding profile to a T. It's hard to imagine a situation, short of Rock Hard Ten completely blowing the start, where he is far off Smarty Jones at any point. Like Sham, Alydar, and Touch Gold, he figures to come out running, looking to start a fight with Smarty. The result depends on many variables, not the least of which is how strongly Smarty Jones keeps running. It's conceivable that with Rock Hard Ten being light on seasoning, and with the type of effort and strategy I believe is coming from him, he could end up unraveling on the far turn.

On the other hand, watch a replay of the Preakness - watch the far turn and don't watch Smarty, hard as that is to do. What you'll see is Rock Hard Ten, his Tiznow-like huge head and body rolling powerfully around runners. Smarty blew the race open, but in that quarter-mile Rock Hard Ten showed me he is the only horse who has the oomph necessary to beat Smarty Jones.

Is it going to happen? If Pat Valenzuela is allowed to ride - he is facing a suspension that is supposed to begin Tuesday but is seeking to have an appeal granted that would allow him to ride in the Belmont - I firmly believe he is going to have Rock Hard Ten at Smarty Jones's throat from the time they bust out of the gate. From there, may the best horse win, and at 5-1 or even higher, I'll take my chances with the Rock.

Met Mile musings

One thing about Monday's Met Mile - a strong pace is assured. Pico Central, Strong Hope, and Azeri are all quick. The pace might set things up for a closer.

After showing promise as a 3-year-old, Gygistar suffered an injury, then went through a tough 4-year-old season in 2003. Things didn't appear to be getting better for a while this year, but when he returned to Belmont for the opening-day Westchester, he looked like as good as he did as a 3-year-old. He absolutely adores Belmont Park (3 wins in 4 starts), and the horse-for-course angle can not be taken lightly.

He also has the ability, having been given Beyer Speed Figures of 109 and 113. And while he's a closer, he's not without tactical speed. It means he can sit in the second flight - behind the duelers and ahead of the deep closers - and pounce when they turn for home. And at 6-1 or higher, he would be an attractive proposition, as long as he's drawn outside.