02/03/2005 1:00AM

Shug figures it's worth a shot

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ARCADIA, Calif. - What's the point of having a $300,000 race restricted to 4-year-olds when one of them is Rock Hard Ten? Why not just cut the check and move on to the next race?

So goes the conventional wisdom, especially in the wake of Rock Hard Ten's mastery of the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on opening day. So decisive was his victory that those in his wake shuffled back to their barns, apologizing for all the bother and grateful merely to be nominated.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, Rock Hard Ten will be asked to move from the seven furlongs of the Malibu to the 1 1/8 miles in the Strub Stakes. That should present few problems, since the big horse has been there before. He lost a close one in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby in the third start of his career. He got what second there was in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness behind Smarty Jones. His first stakes win came in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, going 1 1/8 miles.

Still, anything can happen - and usually does. Strub Stakes history is replete with wacky upsets, most recently in 2001, when Wooden Phone shocked reigning Horse of the year Tiznow.

In 1993, the heavily favored Bertrando had no answer for Siberian Summer. War Heim paid an even $100 on a $2 bet when he beat Hanalei Bay and Mickey McGuire in 1971. Then there was the Strub Stakes of 1968, contested over a deep, tiring surface that sank Horse of the Year Damascus at 1-20 and made a hero out of Most Host.

In February 1991, In Excess was odds-on to add the Strub to his growing r?sum?, which already included the San Fernando Stakes and a division of the Hollywood Derby. Shug McGaughey felt enough of Defensive Play's chances to okay a $20,000 supplemental nomination, then sat back at home in south Florida to await the result. He won by a head, with In Excess third.

McGaughey will be busy saddling runners at Gulfstream on Saturday, when Good Reward represents the barn in the 58th running of the Strub. Shouldn't matter, though. Good Reward did just fine when he ventured to California without McGaughey last November to win the Hollywood Derby. This will be his first start since that race, as well as his first start on dirt in more than 15 months.

"I backed off on him a little bit while I tried to figure out where maybe I could try him on the dirt again without getting in the way of grass opportunities," said McGaughey. "So I knew the Strub was there and that it was restricted to 4-year-olds. I also knew Rock Hard Ten was there. But he's coming off just the one race sprinting. If Good Reward takes to the dirt like he has the grass, I'm not going to be that worried about Rock Hard Ten. If he doesn't, then what can we do?"

Spoken like a true Hall of Famer, which McGaughey has been since last summer, when he was inducted at the age of 53. He was asked if life had changed, if good tables were easier to get, or if his golfing buddies were spotting him a couple of extra strokes a side, simply out of respect.

"No, nothing quite that drastic," McGaughey said. "It's been fun, though, and it means a whole lot to me. I had to get used to seeing my name in print with 'Hall of Fame' in front of 'trainer Shug McGaughey.' Sometimes I look back and think, is all this true?"

Part of being a Hall of Fame trainer is the ability to look back at moments played at the top of the game and learn from those distant memories. Good Reward's trip to the Strub was based partially on events of 26 years ago, when McGaughey was at Santa Anita as assistant trainer to David Whiteley, son of Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley.

"We ran some horses who were grass horses in the East over those harder dirt tracks out there, and they liked it," McGaughey said. "Tiller comes to mind."

He should. Tiller was a son of Herbager, who won the 1978 Bowling Green and finished second in the Man o' War, the Turf Classic, and the Washington, D.C. International. In California the following winter, he became only the second horse in Santa Anita history to win the San Antonio Handicap on dirt and the San Juan Capistrano on the turf (the other was Olden Times). The only thing that kept Tiller from also taking the Santa Anita Handicap was Affirmed.

If Good Reward passes his test for class on dirt, he could become a rare double threat on the American stakes scene. If he does not, McGaughey will have a right to scratch his head whenever he looks at Good Reward's pedigree.

"By Storm Cat out of Heavenly Prize - you'd think he'd run on dirt," McGaughey said. "But pedigree isn't everything. I've got one right now - the first foal out of Oh What a Windfall by Storm Cat - can't outrun me." Please note that Oh What a Windfall is a full sister to Heavenly Prize.

"If he doesn't handle the dirt, we'll come home and go back to the grass," McGaughey said. "So you could call it sort of a no-lose proposition. Still, I'm cautiously optimistic."