One morning, in the week leading up to the Preakness Stakes, Smarty Jones's trainer John Servis looked down the shed row at the Pimlico stakes barn and marveled at the sheer mass of one of his principal rivals, Rock Hard Ten.
"You could fit two of my horses in that horse," Servis said.
Indeed, Rock Hard Ten created a stir the moment he stepped off the van at Pimlico. Enormous (at least 17 hands, or 68 inches tall at the withers), nearly black and a bit ornery, the colt has the regal air of a king's magic steed in a child's storybook.
Born of a dam named 2-year-old champion in France and bred by Madeleine Paulson, who, along with her late husband, Allen, was responsible for such stars as Cigar, Arazi and Theatrical, Rock Hard Ten would be a sensation in any year that did not feature a horse like Smarty Jones.
Now, despite second-place finishes in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness in a career just four races old, Rock Hard Ten is little more than a subplot in the tale of the Triple Crown. Yet, he also appears to be the only horse in the field Saturday for the 136th Belmont Stakes with much of a chance to beat Smarty Jones.
"I never look at it as if we're in a spoiler role," said Paulson, who owns Rock Hard Ten along with Las Vegas poker machine magnate Ernie Moody. "I had to take it for 16 races with spoilers when we had Cigar. My husband [who was chairman of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.] had many records as a flier and he used to say, 'Madeleine, they are made to be broken.' "
Orman has named top California rider Patrick Valenzuela to take over the mount on Rock Hard Ten from Gary Stevens for the Belmont. Valenzuela, however, faces suspension for the month of June by the California Horse Racing Board for failing to report for a drug test.
The jockey's attorney will ask a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to postpone the board's ruling today. Orman said last week he hasn't selected a backup rider if Valenzuela is not allowed to compete. The draw for the Belmont is Wednesday.
Smarty Jones defeated Rock Hard Ten by a record 111/2 lengths in the Preakness, but trainer Jason Orman conferred with the owners and couldn't come up with a reason not to run in the Belmont.
"We discussed it, and it's a big race, and anything can happen in horse racing," said Orman, a 36-year-old native of Calgary, Alberta, who grew up around horses, tagging along after his father, Mike Orman, at Stampede Park in Calgary and Northland in Edmonton. Mike Orman oversees Moody Creek Farm in Bonsall, Calif., for the owners of Rock Hard Ten. "I guess that's why they run the races. If they just did it on paper, it'd be pretty boring."
Orman said Rock Hard Ten's performance in the Preakness will only make him a better horse. Considering the mini-disasters that took place that day -- trouble loading into the gate, a six-wide run into the first turn, the horse performed well, finishing clear of third-place runner Eddington by two lengths.
"I think the horse can improve," Orman said, "and I think the horse got a lot out of his last race. I think he really needed that race."
Paulson said Orman has a great understanding for Rock Hard Ten, who likes things his own way. An owner who likes to get close to her horses, Paulson, 46, keeps her distance from this one, knowing that he will take a bite out of her if he gets the chance.
"He's perfect for Rock Hard Ten," she said of Orman. "He's got a quiet demeanor about him. There's no fanfare. I think Rock Hard Ten understands that about him."
Paulson said she wished the gate crew at Pimlico had as much empathy for her horse as her trainer does. When Rock Hard Ten refused to walk into his slot for the Preakness, the crew only made him more agitated by trying to force him. By the time he loaded, five men were working with the horse, one with a whip.
"At the gate at Pimlico, they see this great, big stallion and say, 'Oh my God, let's get the whip to load him,' " Paulson said. "But they might have done better bowing their head and saying, 'When you're ready, your majesty.' "