The hole opened up for Rock Hard Ten near the eighth pole and the strapping colt burst through to win the $250,000 Malibu Stakes (gr. I) for 3-year-olds Sunday in front of 31,874, the largest opening-day crowd since 1999 at Santa Anita Park.
Ridden by Gary Stevens, Rock Hard Ten was sharp in his return to competition for new trainer Richard Mandella. He trailed early after getting away from the gate poorly and at the top of the stretch he had but three horses beaten. But Stevens guided the son of Kris S. through traffic in the lane and squeezed through an opening in the final furlong to get up by a half-length over Lava Man. Harvard Avenue was a game third, just a nose behind the runner-up.
Mandella said Stevens rode Rock Hard Ten to perfection.
"I told Gary 'don't get in a hurry, just let him settle back, get comfortable and then when he's ready, go on.' What a great ride it was," said Mandella, who won a record fourth Malibu.
Perfect Moon, who drifted outward in the stretch to give Stevens the room he needed late, held on for fourth over the 7-5 favorite, Mass Media.
Trainer Doug O'Neill saddled the second, third and fourth-place finishers.
"All three of them ran great. If I ever got beat by a horse that was geared down at the wire that was it," he said, referring to Rock Hard Ten. "He always has been thought to be a good one and it's obvious he is. But we're happy. All three of them ran dynamite. We would have loved to have won with one of them, but we'll take a second, third and fourth in a grade I any day of the week."
Stevens said he had plenty left for the stretch. He just needed to find the best way to the finish line.
"It seemed like every decision I made happened to be the right one," said Stevens, who won his first Malibu since 1992 on Star Of The Crop. "Sometimes they aren't, but today it was. I got all the right breaks at the right time. When you're riding good horses, those breaks seem to come your way."
Stone Rain, Minister Eric, Grand Reward, Quintons Gold Rush and Jeffries Bay, who was eased in the stretch, followed.
The final time was 1:21 4/5 for the seven furlongs. Opening day handle was $15,769,125, up more than half a million dollars from a year ago.
Owned by Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable and breeder Madeleine Paulson, Rock Hard Ten had been off since turning in a disappointing sixth-place finish, beaten by 15 1/2 lengths, as the 9-10 favorite in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth in August. Subsequently transferred to Mandella, he was previously in the stable of Jason Orman, who saddled Rock Hard Ten to runner-up finishes in both the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and a win the Swaps Breeders' Cup (gr. II) at Hollywood Park in July.
Back home at Santa Anita, where he won the first two races of his career under Stevens, Rock Hard Ten could become the first horse since Precisionist in 1984 to sweep the Strub series for the soon-to-be 4-year-olds. The 1 1/16-mile San Fernando (gr. II) on Jan. 15 and the 1 1/8-mile Strub Stakes (gr. II) on Feb. 5 follow.
"I don't know what's next," Mandella said. "Either the San Fernando or the Strub. The obvious is what we're looking at."
Rock Hard Ten was sent off as the 2-1 second choice in a field of 10.
The colt was a gentleman at the gate, in sharp contrast to some of his previous races, Stevens noted.
"They loaded him first. He's never been a problem in the gate, he's just had trouble loading. But they took a lot of time with him, and he was fine."
Stone Rain, ridden by Martin Pedroza, outfought Perfect Moon (Mike Smith) and Lava Man (Jon Court) for the lead and carved out swift fractions of :22 1/5 and :44 1/5. Perfect Moon and Lava Man took up the running in upper stretch, completing six furlongs in 1:08 1/5. Harvard Avenue, with Garrett Gomez aboard, had the first crack at the leaders but after surging near the wire he could not match the impressive finish by Rock Hard Ten, who got up in the final strides under moderate urging.
Breaking from the rail, Mass Media, who was guided by New York rider Javier Castellano, did not get away strongly, although he tracked the leaders from the inside in fourth for much of the race. However, Mass Media, who was coming off an impressive win over Cigar Mile (gr. I) winner Lion Tamer in the Sport Page Handicap (gr. III) in his last start, had trouble finding running room late and did not respond.
"I was rushed," Castellano said. "They went so fast in the beginning, I didn't think I could handle the speed. I would have liked to be in front, but it was just too fast. I settled down behind the horses and tried to cool him out a little bit, but he doesn't like it inside horses or with a bunch of horses in a big, tight field. He didn't know what to do. When I put him in the clear he ran a little bit but it was too late."
Rock Hard Ten, who is from the Mr. Prospector mare Tersa, earned $150,000 for the biggest win of his career. He has won four of eight lifetime starts with a second and a third and winnings of $790,380.
He paid $6.80, $4 and $3.60. Lava Man returned $5.80 and $4.20, completing a $45.40 exacta. Harvard Avenue's show was $7.20.
Mandella's previous Malibu winners were Dixie Union (2000), Afternoon Deelites (1995) and Oraibi (1988).