08/05/2004 11:00PM

The time is now for Rock Hard Ten

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - With the sudden retirement of Smarty Jones, the sport's next 3-year-old hero could be a big, temperamental bruiser who is finally starting to tap his tremendous potential.

Rock Hard Ten just might be ready for a major breakthrough Sunday in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

But first, he'll have to mind his manners.

"Rock Hard Ten is a big, strong horse," said jockey Joe Bravo, who rides Lion Heart in the Haskell. "I think everyone would agree he is his own worst enemy. If he doesn't act up and throw a fit, he's going to be a tough horse to beat."

Rock Hard Ten came to national prominence in the Santa Anita Derby. He ran second, beaten a head by Castledale, in only his third lifetime start. Rock Hard Ten was placed third for bumping Imperialism.

The disqualification cost him the graded-stakes earnings needed for a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Rock Hard Ten joined the Triple Crown for the last two legs, but might not have been fully ready for that challenge.

A son of Kris S., Rock Hard Ten rallied to get second in the Preakness and raced on the pace in the Belmont Stakes before fading to fifth.

"He was still maturing," said trainer Jason Orman. "He could have easily won the Santa Anita Derby, so you figure he was as good as anything in California. We took a chance. I thought he ran a good race in the Preakness, but Smarty Jones probably ran one of the best races of the year."

Rock Hard Ten also showed a difficult side as he bucked and froze behind the starting gate, delaying the start of the Preakness and the Belmont.

Orman has shown infinite patience with his pupil. Continual trips in the morning to the starting gate and the efforts of the gate crew at Hollywood Park and Del Mar have paid off.

Rock Hard Ten was the model of professionalism in his most recent start, the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 10. He loaded into the gate without a fuss, assumed early stalking position behind Boomzeeboom, and rolled past that rival in the lane to draw off to a 3 3/4-length victory.

It was his first stakes win and set the stage for the trip to the Haskell.

"It was a good confidence booster for him, especially after the Belmont," said Orman. "I thought he ran a very good race. He relaxed, and when the rider asked him to go, he accelerated pretty good."

Rock Hard Ten arrived at Monmouth on Wednesday night and walked the shed row Thursday morning. Several local trainers stopped by to admire him.

"He's very athletic for a big horse," said Orman. "I don't think there's any negative to it. If he wasn't so athletic, there might be some negatives. But for a big, long striding horse, he's very athletic."

Taking every precaution to avoid gate problems, Orman schooled Rock Hard Ten with the Monmouth crew Friday morning.

"He went into the gate with no problem and stepped right out," said Orman. "He was very professional."

The Haskell could be the launching pad for Rock Hard Ten. A win here and in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28 could end the laments over the loss of Smarty Jones.

"There is a void there and it's pretty big," said Orman. "Hopefully he can win his next couple of races and he might be able to fill it. If he continues to develop, he has a chance to."