07/11/2004 11:00PM

Rock Hard Ten's potential emerges

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NEW YORK - It wasn't the Grade 1, $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, one of the Summit of Speed races at Calder Race Course, or the Grade 1 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap. The race last weekend that will likely have the greatest impact was Saturday's Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes at Hollywood Park.

That is entirely due to Rock Hard Ten and the way he won it.

It wasn't that Rock Hard Ten beat a stellar group,, because he didn't. And it wasn't because Rock Hard Ten ran sensationally fast, because his winning Beyer Speed Figure of 108 was okay but not that imposing. What was so compelling was the dominance Rock Hard Ten displayed.

Rock Hard Ten was being asked to do a lot when he made only the third start of his life in the Santa Anita Derby, and was being asked to do even more when he made the fourth and fifth starts of his career in the last two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Rock Hard Ten was hard ridden through the first mile of the Belmont, so his effort was somewhat more demanding than even the typical demands of a 1 1/2-mile classic event. Yet, he was running back in only five weeks in the Swaps, which made him the first prominent member of this year's Belmont field to reappear. All of this could have made Rock Hard Ten vulnerable Saturday, but much to his credit, he was more than equal to the task.

The first good sign for Rock Hard Ten was better behavior at the starting gate compared with the immature tantrums he threw before the Preakness and Belmont. Then, Rock Hard Ten could have had Swaps pacesetter Boomzeeboom pretty much anytime he wanted. He let Boomzeeboom carry him to the top of the stretch, at which point he blew open the race and pulled off the pretty neat trick of commanding the eye so much that he effectively made the rest of the field disappear.

His Swaps performance now has Rock Hard Ten perfectly positioned for what could turn out to be a lucrative late summer and fall campaign. He's not going to be a champion in his division this year because Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones has that all but locked up. However, with Smarty Jones's campaign now etched in stone with the Pennsylvania Derby and Pegasus as his path to the Breeders' Cup Classic, there is a lot left on the table, such as $1 million in the Aug. 28 Travers at Saratoga. Also, the handicap division looks a little weaker now with the retirement of Medaglia d'Oro, and with some uncertainty over Pleasantly Perfect's return from his Dubai World Cup victory. Remember, very few are ever the same. For example, Medaglia d'Oro never raced again after Dubai. Factor in questions about Southern Image's foot problems and races such as the Woodward, the Meadowlands Cup, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup may become ripe for the picking.

The other weekend race that may have substantial influence down the road, as well as reverberations next year, was Saturday's Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs.

Artie Schiller, who came into the Virginia Derby on a three-race win streak, ran a big race. He finished nearly five lengths in front of his closest pursuer, who in turn was nearly 13 lengths in front of the next finisher. The only problem for Artie Schiller was that Kitten's Joy ran an even bigger race, pulling away strongly in the late stages to score by almost three lengths over Artie Schiller and improve his turf record to six wins from seven starts.

Normally, I wouldn't be too excited about the outcome of turf stakes restricted to 3-year-olds because it isn't often that the winners are able to duplicate that form in the best turf races open to older horses. Kitten's Joy and perhaps Artie Schiller may be exceptions in a year when the older turf division is weaker than normal. Kitten's Joy earned a Beyer of 104 in the Virginia Derby, which is only five points off what the older Meteor Storm recently earned in the Manhattan Handicap and what the older Bayamo recently earned in the American Handicap. Five points going a distance of ground equates to only about three lengths (what it precisely equates to depends on the exact distance). Three lengths is not a lot to make up, particularly when you're talking about 3-year-olds who get faster just with normal maturity as the year goes on.

Of course, the turf division will get significantly tougher in the fall once the European shippers begin to arrive in force. But, Kitten's Joy and Artie Schiller are going to get tougher, too.