ELMONT, N.Y. — On a picturesque morning at Belmont Park -- the rain would wait for the afternoon race card -- it made for a fascinating tableau, one Belmont Stakes winner going head to head against a colt who hopes to win the next Belmont.
Sarava, who won the 2002 Belmont at 70-1, spoiling War Emblem's Triple Crown bid, is a shell of what he was that day, and at the quarter pole of Monday's five-furlong workout it was all over. Rock Hard Ten, two years younger, surged past Sarava and beat him by at least three lengths, reaching the wire in what his trainer, Jason Orman, said was a time of 57 4/5 seconds.
Perhaps Orman didn't have a good view for the last eighth of a mile, and the Belmont clockers' time of 59 seconds was probably more accurate, but the point Rock Hard Ten made is that he's ready for Saturday's challenge, the Everest he must try to climb against Smarty Jones, another Triple Crown wannabe. Last week, Rock Hard Ten was a cause for concern when he had to be coerced into finishing a workout.
"May the best horse win, and I hope I have the best horse," a relieved Orman said Monday.
The problem is that Rock Hard Ten, second in the Preakness, must make up the 11 1/2 lengths that Smarty Jones beat him by at Pimlico.
"I'm more comfortable than confident," Orman said. "Smarty Jones is a great horse, but my horse has really turned a corner since his last race. Is Smarty Jones beatable? That's why we're here. We need to run a really good race, and Smarty Jones needs to come back a bit."
Rock Hard Ten races for Ernie Moody, Mercedes Vila and Madeleine Paulson, and was bred by Paulson, who, many might forget, was the original owner of Cigar. With a win on Saturday and a second $5-million bonus in his kick, Smarty Jones would pass Cigar as the record purse-winner in North America. Cigar retired in 1996 with two horse-of-the-year titles and $9,999,815 in earnings. Smarty Jones, unbeaten in eight races, has earned $7,413,155.
Madeleine and Allen Paulson, her husband, raced horses together until Paulson's death in 2000. Paulson bred Cigar, but the horse ran in his wife's name for almost two years while he was mired in the allowance grass ranks of Southern California.
Midway through 1994, Paulson moved Cigar from trainer Alex Hassinger Jr. in California to Bill Mott in New York. Mott threw out Cigar's grass breeding, and almost out of desperation the horse was switched to the dirt races on which he would thrive.
"Cigar won in my silks," said Madeleine Paulson, referring to the New York Racing Assn. Mile. "Then Allen and I traded some horses around, and he got Cigar. He needed some good horses at the time. It was a good thing. There would have been nothing worse than Allen watching me win 16 straight races with Cigar. And I was happy to cheer Allen on when he won the 16 straight."
The 1994 NYRA Mile was win No. 2 in the Cigar streak that matched Citation's 16 in a row. The streak ended at Del Mar on Aug. 10, 1996, when Dare And Go beat Cigar in the Pacific Classic.
Cigar's purse total came the old-fashioned way, without any top-heavy bonuses, but if Smarty Jones wins the Belmont, Paulson will have no quibble with the new money leader.
"In the first place, I don't judge horses by their money totals, I don't think that makes any sense," Paulson said. "It's the races they win, not the money they earn. Whatever Smarty Jones does should help all of us. It might lead to more bonuses down the road. We'll be trying to beat him, but if he wins the Belmont, it will be great -- tremendous -- for the game."
There was a bitter and protracted legal battle over Allen Paulson's horses after his death. Michael Paulson, Allen's son, and Madeleine Paulson eventually reached a settlement, in February 2003, but one of the horses who stayed with Michael Paulson was Azeri, who won horse-of-the-year honors in 2002. Any argument over Cigar's stud career was moot; he was sterile, but was protected by a $25-million insurance policy that Allen Paulson bought. Cigar, now 14, has become one of the tourist attractions -- along with John Henry, another two-time horse of the year -- at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington.
Madeleine Paulson owns 25% of Rock Hard Ten, who ran only three times before the Preakness. He won a pair of races at Santa Anita early this year, then finished second and was disqualified to third in the Santa Anita Derby. Rock Hard Ten dwarfs Cigar, who was not a small horse. At 17 hands (measured at 68 inches at the withers), Rock Hard Ten is about nine inches taller than Cigar and outweighs him by more than 150 pounds.
"He's still like a big child," Paulson said. "He reminds me of a Michael Jordan, not making the cut until he grew into his body. In only four races, our horse has found a following. There was a buzz about him before he even raced. The crowd chanted his name before he ran in the Santa Anita Derby."