07/08/2004 12:00AM

Rock Hard Ten's second season begins


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For Rock Hard Ten, ambition has been replaced by reality. The first six months of the year were spent chasing the Triple Crown races, and rightly so, since Rock Hard Ten had earned the opportunities.

Once he crossed the wire second in the Santa Anita Derby in only his third start, had earned the right to try for the Kentucky Derby. He could not crack the Derby field because of insufficient earnings, so he tried for a consolation prize, in the Preakness Stakes. A second-place finish there earned him a trip to the Belmont Stakes, even though Smarty Jones was acknowledged as the overwhelming favorite in that race.

"Going a mile and a half, there were questions over the ability of a lot of those horses being able to run that far," said Jason Orman, the trainer of Rock Hard Ten. "A lot can happen, as we saw. It just didn't happen for us."

The Belmont was a meek surrender for Rock Hard Ten. He lost the battle after taking the fight to Smarty Jones with seven furlongs to go, and he lost the war, finishing a distant fifth in the worst performance of his career. He came back to California to regroup.

The second half of the season begins for him in Saturday's Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Hard to believe after that heady spring, but Rock Hard Ten is still eligible for second-level allowance conditions. The Swaps is a chance to take one step back before again charging forward, Orman said.

"Those races were pretty tough," Orman said. "This is quite a bit easier. It's a chance to get his confidence back."

Trainers and owners often anthropomorphize the feelings of their horses. Oftentimes, the confidence-builder is more for the trainer's peace of mind than that of the horse. But Orman said he has lost no confidence in Rock Hard Ten.

"He ran well in the Preakness," Orman said. "Smarty Jones ran one of the best races we've seen this year. Then to run a mile and a half in the Belmont in just his fifth start, that was asking a lot of the horse."

Rock Hard Ten was asked to do a lot in that race. He found himself on the rail under jockey Alex Solis when entering the long Belmont Park backstretch, with Smarty Jones just in front of him and to his outside. When Eddington ranged up three paths wide, Smarty Jones picked up the pace, and so did Rock Hard Ten. That celebrated middle half-mile fried Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, and softened up Smarty Jones just enough that he was caught in the final yards by an opportunistic Birdstone.

"I would have preferred for him to sit farther back," Orman said. "When Eddington rushed up, I wish he would have sat. But everybody was thinking that if you didn't put pressure on Smarty Jones, you'd be in trouble."

At the least, Rock Hard Ten came out of the Belmont in good condition. He spent 10 days in Bonsall, Calif., at the Moody Creek Farm of his co-owner Ernie Moody. No race schedule had been mapped out. But Rock Hard Ten came around so quickly that the Swaps became a tempting target.

"We weren't looking for anything," Orman said. "We just wanted to give him time and see how he came out of the Belmont. We trained him pretty light. If he didn't act like he was acting now, we wouldn't run him. If he looked tired, we'd have skipped this race. The only option other than the Swaps would be to send him back East for races like the Haskell or Jim Dandy, but those races might be tougher."

Rock Hard Ten always has been a physically imposing horse. Despite his size, he is a graceful, elegant mover. But he has tended to want his own way around the starting gate. He caused some trouble while loading for the Preakness, so he received several schooling sessions at Belmont Park prior to the Belmont Stakes. Rock Hard Ten had largely behaved himself leading up to the race, but then on race day he needed to be blindfolded at the gate after twice balking at being loaded.

"I think it was because it was so loud," Orman said. "There were so many people there."

In recent weeks at Hollywood Park, Rock Hard Ten has had several schooling sessions with starter Gary Brinson. They have gone well.

"I think he's getting bigger and stronger, and mentally he's more mature right now," Orman said.

It's time for Rock Hard Ten to put his best hoof forward.