Odds-on favorite Rock Hard Ten gave everything he had to hold off the determined Imperialism by a nose in an exhilarating finish to the $300,000 Strub Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Saturday.
With Gary Stevens in the irons, Rock Hard Ten spoiled the return of jockey Alex Solis, who was aboard Imperialism after an absence of more than six months. Solis, 40, sustained a fractured vertebra and three broken ribs in a spill at Del Mar July 23.
It was the second consecutive major win for Rock Hard Ten at the Santa Anita meet. The 4-year-old son of Kris S. won the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) in his previous start Dec. 26.
With an early move, Rock Hard Ten edged past the stubborn pacesetter Love of Money in upper stretch and dug down for everything he had to hold off Imperialism for the victory. It looked like the grey colt Imperialism had the measure of his rival in the final stages, but Stevens switched to his right hand for a couple of cracks of the whip in the last few strides, which may have made the difference. The final time for the 1 1/8-mile Strub was 1:49 1/5.
"I had to make a premature move," Stevens said. "There was a gap in front of me and I had to go or risk getting shut off. I wouldn't say it was one of my better rides. He overcame my ride today. I can't say enough about this horse. He's really, really special.
"I couldn't tell (who won). I was just down riding him. At first I was hoping the wire would come up soon, then I was hoping that I had a couple more jumps, but I do believe (Imperialism) got in front of us."
Solis was far from disappointed.
"It feels incredible to be back," said the Panamanian jockey, a three-time Santa Anita riding champion. "I'm tickled to death right now. (Imperialism) ran a great race. The other horse kept fighting us, and he didn't get tired, but I got tired."
In upper stretch, it appeared the finish might come down to the first three horses in last year's Santa Anita Derby. The winner of that race, Castledale, who moved together with Rock Hard Ten, found room along the inside coming off the turn and had first crack at Love of Money. But he tired and finished off the board as Rock Hard Ten took over the chase.
In the Derby, Rock Hard Ten also beat Imperialism to the wire, but was disqualified for ducking in and impeding Imperialism.
Since then, trainer Richard Mandella has taken over the training of the strapping colt, who seems to have finally realized his full potential and figures to be a major factor on the national handicap scene this year. Mandella, who has won with 13 of his 28 starters at the current meet, swept this year's Strub series for horses foaled in 2001, having also won the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. II) last month with Minister Eric.
Mandella said Rock Hard Ten could next start in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 5, although the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 26 is also possible.
Love of Money, who was pressured by Diamond Fury and With Distinction on his outside, set fast fractions for the distance of :22 1/5, :45 and 1:09 3/5, and was still around to finish third, 3 1/2 lengths behind the winner, under Victor Espinoza. Good Reward, the Hollywood Derby (gr. I) winner on the grass in his last start for trainer Shug McGaughey, made up ground in the stretch to finish fourth.
Rock Hard Ten was seventh in the nine-horse field after breaking a step slowly, settling outside while chasing the pace. He made a big bid on the turn while three wide, moving into fourth before taking aim on Love of Money. Imperialism, who trailed the field while slightly off the rail, saved ground until swinging out four wide for the drive.
Owned by Ernest Moody of Las Vegas and breeder Madeleine Paulson of Del Mar, Rock Hard Ten earned $180,000 for his fifth victory in nine lifetime starts, pushing his bankroll to $970,380. In addition to the Malibu, he also won the Swaps Breeders' Cup (gr. II) at Hollywood Park last year and was second to Smarty Jones in the Preakness (gr. I).
Bred in Kentucky, Rock Hard Ten was produced by the Mr. Prospector mare Tersa.
He paid $3.60, $2.80 and $2.20. Imperialism, who has now lost eight in a row since winning last year's San Rafael (gr. II), returned $4.40 and $3. Love of Money, who has been on the sidelines since running sixth as the favorite in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) Oct. 2, was $2.80 to show.
After Good Reward came Castledale, My Creed, With Distinction, Hendrix, and Diamond Fury. Skipaslew scratched.
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