Often accused of failing to realize his awesome potential, Rock Hard Ten brought his true knockout punch to Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), pulling away for a decisive 1 3/4-length victory over the strongest field he is yet to face.
There figures to be plenty of more big contests for the strapping son of Kris S., who is trained by Richard Mandella for Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable LLC and Madeleine Paulson, who bred Rock Hard Ten. But he'll need to go some to match the style with which he won the 2005 Big 'Cap.
Rock Hard Ten, the most physically imposing horse in the race at 17 hands, was cheered loudly by the crowd of 35,484, largest for the Santa Anita Handicap since 1996.
"He's such a nice horse to do what he's done," Mandella said. "To win the grade I Malibu and now the Santa Anita Handicap, you've got to have a couple different gears to do that and he's pretty nice."
"We've given him a lot to do here and we'll give him a little bit of rest and what that means I don't know exactly but we'll give him a break because we want him to be good later in the year, too."
It was third Santa Anita Handicap win for Mandella.
Ridden by Gary Stevens, Rock Hard Ten, carrying 119 pounds, won his third consecutive race at the meeting. The seven-furlong Malibu (gr. I) and the 1 1/8-mile Strub (gr. II) preceded it.
"Yeah, this was a real nice early birthday present," said Stevens, who turns 42 Sunday. Plenty of reason to celebrate.
"I don't know how long I'll carry on for, but with this kind of horse ... I've kind of re-devoted myself this year, just concentrate on riding. I had some other things on the plate before, and I think I was just trying to mix too many things. So I made a full-on commitment for this year and I'm happy about it, especially riding a horse like this."
"The sky's the limit for him (Rock Hard Ten)," added Stevens, who won his fourth Big 'Cap. "I think Richard said it best in the winner's circle – that he's going to continue to improve. You haven't seen the best of him."
Ideally positioned in fifth place on the outside of the pacesetters while in the second tier of horses after breaking alertly, Rock Hard Ten rallied four wide coming off the far turn. He stormed to the front in mid-stretch and won impressively while drawing off under moderate urging. Stevens didn't have to go to the whip until the closing stages as Rock Hard Time posted a winning time of 2:01 1/5 for the 1 1/4-mile Big 'Cap.
Shades of Charlie Whittingham, who won the Santa Anita Handicap a record nine times – Congrats rallied for second to complete an all-Mandella exacta. He was a length in front of 25-1 shot Borrego, who edged 54-1 outsider Grand Reward by a head for third. That created a $22,397.40 trifecta.
"I got him out of the house and he made an awesome run," said Tyler Baze, who rode Congrats. "I thought he was going to fly right by everybody for a minute. But Rock Hard Ten's a game horse."
Borrego's rider, Garrett Gomez, said he had a nice position right behind the leaders in the stretch.
"I had room down the lane, but my horse was kind of a little timid down in there," he said. "I got him to the outside and he quickened quite nicely for me and came on and got up for third. Usually after a mile and an eighth a horse doesn't quicken, so that's a huge plus for him. "
The 122-pound high weight Saint Liam, the Donn Handicap (gr. I) winner who was sent off 11-10 favorite in the field of 11, prompted a solid pace behind Truly a Judge and Grand Reward, but threw in the towel under jockey Edgar Prado as they came off the final turn. He finished sixth.
"I was done on the backside," Prado groaned. "He was lugging in a little bit and it just wasn't him. He didn't handle the track very well. He's normally a better horse than that. When you call him he responds right away. But today he was kind of shut down a little bit."
Also absent from the fray was Imperialism, who just missed by a nose against Rock Hard Ten in the Strub. The gray colt, 9-2 on the board, wobbled home seventh after racing in next-to-last most of the way.
Truly a Judge set fractions of :23, :46 1/5 and 1:10 4/5 before fading out of contention quickly.
Sent off as the 7-2 second choice, Rock Hard Ten returned $9.60, $5.60 and $4.40. Congrats returned $12 and $9.80 and the all-Mandella exacta was worth $124.20. Borrego's show was $10.
The victory – the sixth in 10 career tries for the dark bay – pushed Rock Hard Ten well past the $1 million mark in earnings. His total now stands at $1,570,380. Rock Hard Ten was produced in Kentucky by the Mr. Prospector mare Tersa.
Lundy's Liability finished fifth, followed by the aforementioned Saint Liam and Imperialism. Then came Californian, Island Fashion, Truly a Judge, and Supah Blitz.