03/05/2005 1:00AM

Rock Hard Ten wins Big Cap

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Benoit Photo
Rock Hard Ten wins the $1,000,000 Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Rock Hard Ten turned for home in Saturday's $1 million trailing Grand Reward by a length when owner Ernie Moody's eyes quickly went through the back of the field.

Moody was searching for Imperialism, the colt that finished second to Rock Hard Ten in the Strub Stakes on Feb. 5, and for other late runners that could challenge his colt.

A few strides later, the point became moot.

Rock Hard Ten ($9.60) took the lead inside the final furlong and went on to score the most important win of his career. He finished 1 1-4 miles in 2:01.20.

"I was hoping he wouldn't run out of gas and would have something left to hold off Imperialism," Moody said. "If you could imagine how the race would set up, it was perfect in the end."

The victory marked the first success in the Big Cap for Moody, who co-owns Rock Hard Ten with Madeleine Paulson. Rock Hard Ten's win marked the fourth Big Cap success for jockey Gary Stevens and the third for trainer Richard Mandella.

The Mandella-trained Congrats, a 14-1 shot, finished second. Borrego, a 25-1 shot, finished third in the field of 10. Imperialism never threatened and finished seventh, one position behind even-money favorite Saint Liam, the winner of the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park last month.

Saint Liam was near the front until the final turn before fading.

"I was done on the backstretch. He was lugging in and that's not him," said Edgar Prado, who rode Saint Liam. "He wasn't comfortable. When he's right, he's push-button. He wasn't like that."

Rock Hard Ten, 4, scored his third consecutive stakes win in the Big Cap, a streak that began in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26 and continued in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes on Feb. 5.

Stevens gave Rock Hard Ten a confident ride. Rock Hard Ten was a length behind pacesetter Truly a Judge when the field ran through the stretch for the first time, but was four or five lengths off the pace on the backstretch.

"Gary was pretty smart to ease him back and give him something to run at," Mandella said.

On the final turn, Rock Hard Ten rallied four-wide, and quickly moved to third behind Grand Reward and Saint Liam.

Stevens hit Rock Hard Ten twice left-handed in the stretch and then put his stick away.

The margin at the finish was 1 3-4 lengths. Mandella had swept the exacta. In 1997, his stable swept the trifecta, with Siphon, Sandpit and Gentlemen.

Saturday's race marked the first win against older horses for Rock Hard Ten, who has won 6 of 10 starts and $1,570,380.

"The sky's the limit for him," said Stevens, who turned 43 on Sunday. "I think Richard said it best in the winner's circle that he's going to continue to improve."