Returning from a seven-month layoff, Rock Hard Ten swept past reluctant pacesetter Roman Ruler in the final furlong to win Saturday's $484,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.
Rock Hard Ten won his fourth straight race since joining the stable of Richard Mandella, who said afterward that his 4-year-old son of Kris S. is on target for the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) at Belmont Park Oct. 29. Rock Hard Ten captured the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in his last start March 5.
"This was the big obstacle, to get him back, make sure he ran the race that he ran last winter here and he did that," Mandella said. "I don't know that he's not getting better. From here I'll just train him like any other horse and come back a month from now in the Breeders' Cup.
"He's a very good horse, he really is. Hopefully, in time he'll show just how good."
Gary Stevens hand-rode Rock Hard Ten to a one-length victory over a four-horse field in 1:48 3/5 for the 1 1/8-mile event contested in brutal Southern California heat.
Roman Ruler, ridden by David Flores, was allowed an easy lead through soft fractions – :24 1/5, :48 3/5 and 1:12 – and tried to shake loose of Rock Hard Ten, who stalked in second all the way.
But Rock Hard Ten would not be denied. He edged up to even terms at the eighth pole and was in control with a sixteenth left while under a firm hold by Stevens, who showed the strapping dark bay the whip just once.
"They were walking early, and there's just not many horses that can out kick this one the last quarter of a mile," Stevens said. "We really picked it up from the half-mile pole in. Then I think by the time we got to the quarter pole, it was just a matter of how far I wanted to win by, and when I wanted to ask him.
"Fortunately, Roman Ruler is a very, very good horse and he was able to carry me to the eighth pole where I really needed to come home strong. It was a good race for him. Everybody knows how much I believe in this horse, so I'll let him do his speaking on the race track."
Trainer Bob Baffert wasn't hanging his head over Roman Ruler's defeat, but said he isn't sure which way to go with his Haskell (gr. I) winner.
"We just got beat by a good horse. That other horse is a good horse, you know? I don't know what's next for him right now."
Choctaw Nation tailed off behind the field early and ran on for third under Alex Solis. The Chilean-bred Total Impact raced closed to the first two into the stretch but faded. The field was reduced to four by the scratches of Preachinatthebar and Gotaghostofachance.
Rock Hard Ten's seventh win in 11 career starts increased his earnings to $1,870,380 for Mercedes Stable LLC (Ernest Moody and Maria Vila) and Madeleine Paulson Pickens, who bred the winner in Kentucky.
Prior to the Big 'Cap, Rock Hard Ten won the Strub (gr. II) and the Malibu (gr. I) at Santa Anita under Mandella's tutelage.
The winner paid $3.40 and $2.40, as the 3-5 choice. Roman Ruler returned $2.80 and the exacta was $4.80. There was no show wagering.