Rock Hard Ten Goes to Gate School

(from Belmont Park notes)
In the Preakness last week, Rock Hard Ten, a huge colt, was especially conspicuous. As the last horse loaded into the gate at Pimlico, Rock Hard Ten had the attention of the racing world and NBC's national audience as he kicked, balked and fought his way into finally settling in the starting gate.

After he ran second in the Preakness, 11 ½-length behind Smarty Jones, it's obvious that to upset Smarty Jones' bid to become racing's 12th Visa Triple Crown winner in the $1 million Belmont Stakes on June 5, it certainly behooves him to learn better gate etiquette.

His lessons started this morning.

After the mid-morning break and after jockey John Byrne galloped him a mile and an eighth around the main Belmont track, Rock Hard Ten was brought to New York Racing Association consulting starter Bob Duncan to school at the gate.

Duncan's knowledge and patience soon established the necessary rapport with Rock Hard Ten to handle the task ahead.

"This was a good first day," said Duncan, who got Rock Hard Ten to stop kicking and to walk in the gate and stand straight. A lot of the good we did today was right back here behind the gate. We had other horses here, a lot of people and a lot of activity. I just kept walking him, petting him, talking to him and gaining his trust.

"When he first came here this morning, I needed a lot of pressure to get him to back up. Before too long, I could back him up with less pressure and finally, all I had to do was move my shoulders a little bit."

Duncan patiently walked Rock Hard Ten up to the starting gate, where the bay colt kept sticking his nose out to check out the individual stalls. Although he kicked a bit early on, he seemed more curious than mean and soon he stopped kicking completely. Duncan walked him into and through the stall, walked him in and backed him out, brought him in the opposite way and stood him, while he and two assistant starters petted him. He worked with the colt for about 30 minutes.

"The cowboys described horses as using the left side and right side of the brain," Duncan said. "The horse's left side will let him take things in, process the information and reason things out. The right side knows only fright and flight.

"Our job is to get him to that left-side thinking. If we started out today grabbing him and forcing him, he would have kicked out at any of us. Instead, I tried to first gain his trust so he knows I'm not going to hurt him. Then, gradually, I give him my signals to do what I want him to do. Once he realizes I'm no going to hurt him, he starts to relax and recognizes me as the leader.

"This is exactly what happens with horses in herds. I know it sounds ethereal and maybe it is a little hard to understand. But we are trying to think as a horse thinks."

Byrne was impressed with the half-hour session.

"He (Duncan) really knows what he is doing, and it was amazing to watch," he said.

Duncan said that Rock Hard Ten would likely school again on Sunday morning.

"He might regress a little tomorrow, which is only natural," Duncan said. "But I am very happy where we left off today. The idea is to end each session on a positive note."

Meanwhile, trainer Jason Orman said that jockey Patrick Valenzuela is Rock Hard Tens' jockey of record for the moment. Valenzuela would replace Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, who has previous commitments in Europe.

The snag with Valenzuela is that he was suspended four months by the California Horse Racing Board for missing a mandatory drug test in January. On Tuesday, Valenzuela was informed that the board had given him credit for three months served earlier this year. Valenzuela may appeal in hopes of getting the suspension delayed, or serve the remaining time beginning June 1.

Orman will saddle Laura's Lucky Boy in the Grade 3 Will Rogers today at Hollywood Park, and then fly to New York this evening.