It took Rock Hard Ten three tries, but he finally worked Tuesday morning for the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with jockey Pat Valenzuela, who may or may not ride the colt in the Belmont, aboard. Even the distance and time of the work are uncertain, depending on how you look at it.
Now that you're totally confused, here's what happened. Trainer Jason Orman had planned a simple six-furlong work for the towering son of Kris S., with Valenzuela flying in to work the colt, whom he has never been on before. Valenzuela is seeking a continuance of a suspension (handed out in late April) until June 6, which would allow him to ride in the Belmont.
"We haven't heard if that's going to be granted or not," said agent Corey Black. "They can't grant the continuance because they don't even have an order out yet. It's been a week now. Our next recourse would be to go to the Superior Court and ask for an appeal at that level. Then we'd drop it after the Belmont. Pat is willing to take the suspension. He just wants to fulfill the commitment he already had made before the suspension came down. It was supposed to start June 1, I guess because the condition book ran through May 31, and they wanted to let us fulfill our engagements in the condition book. But we also had made a commitment to (Rock Hard Ten's co-owners) Ernie Moody and Madeleine Paulson for the Belmont Stakes and we feel we owe it to them to fulfill the commitment."
Now for the main bit of drama this morning. Orman told Valenzuela to go slow early and just let the colt finish and get a feel for him. Valenzuela certainly did get a feel. After being turned loose by the outrider, Rock Hard Ten approached the six-furlong pole, but had no inclination to work, so Valenzuela pulled him up and turned around. Escorted by the pony back down the backstretch, he again turned around and began his work after a short run to the pole. But after a few strides, the colt again came out of the work.
"I don't know what he's doing," Orman said of his colt as he watched stoically from the grandstand. "This is the first time he's done that."
This time, however, Valenzuela didn't give up on the work. He kept after him and he finally was able to get him to break off around the far turn, just before the half-mile pole. Once the colt got rolling, he worked super, cutting the corner, switching leads on cue, and coming home strong. Because the work had started so strangely, his opening splits, from private clockers, were slow -- :13 3/5, :24 4/5, and :48 4/5. Valenzuela pushed forward and Rock Hard Ten lowered his head and pinned his ears, flying the eighth past the wire in :11 1/5 to complete the five furlongs in 1:00. Valenzuela kept him going into the clubhouse turn, again cutting the corner beautifully, and was clocked the six furlongs in 1:12 4/5, with the last part of that on the turn. Track clockers caught the last three-eighths to the wire and an eighth past the wire for a half-mile breeze in :47 2/5. But Orman somehow was able to get in his six furlongs, as bizarre as it might have been.
"He's getting too smart," Orman said afterward.
Black, who has exercised Rock Hard Ten on numerous occasions, met up with Orman and said, "He's got a mind of his own. I was wondering when the day was going to come when he realized he was 100% in charge. He's always been obstinate."
As Valenzuela returned, he told Orman, "Well, we got a good five-eighths in."
"He's starting to get smart, huh?" Orman asked.
"Exactly. He went about an eighth and he just wouldnt work," Valenzuela said. "When he goes up against the other horses he'll be fine. He'll go around here like nothing. He just needs something to run with. Even if there's something behind him he'll keep running. He felt good out there. Everything went right until he just refused to work, so I came right out of it. It was like he was saying, I want to roll with somebody; I don't want to run out there alone. So, I elected not to work him and took him back with the pony. He started off working again, pulled up a little going into the turn, then went back into the work. He finally got the hang of it, and he did it all on his own. He has a tremendous amount of ability, that's for sure."
Orman asked Valenzuela about the possibility of blinkers, and Valenzuela agreed there was a good chance they would help keep him more focused. Orman said he'll work Rock Hard Ten next Monday with blinkers, and in company this time. If he trains well in them, there's a good chance he'll wear them for the Belmont.
"I don't think it'll get him too sharp, just get him to pay attention more," Orman said. He'll also send the colt to the gate again on Thursday, where starter/advisor Bob Duncan has been working with him.
"I'll take him back there as many times as Bob wants him," Orman said. "He's a bit of a challenge now."
That may have been the understatement of the morning.