09/05/2002 12:00AM

Rock Opera ready to fight in derby

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DEL MAR, Calif. - In his first four starts, Rock Opera has already proven that he relishes a fight. He will have no trouble finding one in Saturday's $300,000 Del Mar Derby.

In June, Rock Opera beat Chiselling by a head in an allowance race at Hollywood Park, a performance flattered when Chiselling won the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park last month.

When Rock Opera made his stakes debut in a division of the one-mile Oceanside Stakes July 24, he led by two lengths in early stretch, but was all out to hold off Johar and Mountain Rage.

The experience from those races will help Rock Opera in the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby, which is run over 1 1/8 miles on turf.

Even if he does make his customary lead, there will be plenty of top-class pursuers making a run in the final three furlongs.

"He's gutty," trainer Clifford Sise said. "Even when they came to him in the Oceanside, he took off again. It's not like he's done at the wire. I don't think the mile and an eighth will be a problem."

Rock Opera has led throughout his three wins. In his only loss, he failed to make the lead, but finished a respectable third. Consequently, there is little doubt of the tactics jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. will employ in the Del Mar Derby, which is Rock Opera's graded stakes debut.

Rock Opera faces eight others, including two stakes winners at this meeting trained by Bobby Frankel - Inesperado (who won the La Jolla Handicap) and True Phenomenon (a division of the Oceanside Stakes).

Mr. Mellon, the winner of the Grade 2 Arlington Classic on June 29, is the lone shipper. The other starters are Mountain Rage, a four-time stakes winner on turf; Dell Place, a stylish winner of the Relaunch Stakes on Aug. 16; and Golden Arrow, Hecandigit, and Johar, who are stakes placed.

Mr. Mellon was a well-beaten fifth behind War Emblem in the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 4, but is better suited to turf, according to trainer Elliott Walden.

"I didn't give him any excuse in the Haskell," Walden said. "He was doing great and that's why we wanted to try the dirt. We wanted to give him a chance to perform against the best.

"I think he's the type of horse that runs better when he's switched off. The way he ran the Arlington Classic is his best style: sit there and wait for something good to happen."

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