Lava Man must win out of
town to be Horse of Year

Sep 5, 2006 2:38 AM

Lava Man is the king of California, but if he’s going to be Horse of the Year, he’ll have to prove he’s more than a One State Wonder.

The 5-year-old California-bred gelding already has made history on two counts. He’s the first horse to win the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup and the $1 million Pacific Classic—each a Grade I race--in the same year.

Since he was claimed for $50,000 on Aug. 13, 2004, he has earned more than $3.4 million. That’s more than any horse has ever earned after being claimed. Overall, the son of Slew City Slew has earned $3,504,706.

That looks great on Lava Man’s resume, but unless he beats the likes of Bernardini and Invasor in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4, it’s merely bankable gingerbread.

After winning the 2005 Hollywood Gold Cup and finishing third by three-quarters of a length to Borrego in last year’s Pacific Classic, Lava Man was beaten 45 ½ lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 1 and 17 1/4 in the Japan Cup Dirt on Nov. 26. He returned to California where he hasn’t lost since, winning six in a row including the Grade I Charlie Whittingham Handicap June 10 at 1 1/4 miles on turf.

"We shipped right on top of the race for the New York race," said trainer Doug O’Neill in explaining the dismal Jockey Club performance. "That was a disaster. We shipped two weeks out for the race in Japan and he settled in beautifully, but it was a real sandy track and it burned the bottom of one foot, so that was the excuse for that race. But if all goes well and we get him to Churchill Downs a couple weeks out, we’ll have no excuses that way."

The Classic would be Lava Man’s first race at Churchill Downs. In 33 previous starts, he has won 13, with seven seconds and three thirds. But he has never won outside California.

Lava Man will have one more race before the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic on the main track, and it’s likely to be the $250,000 Clement L. Hirsch Sept. 30 at 1 1/4 miles on turf at Oak Tree, as opposed to the $500,000 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap on the main track Oct. 7.

Timing is everything, and in the case of Lava Man’s quest for Horse of the Year honors, it’s why O’Neill is leaning towards the Hirsch.

"It’s 60-40 for the Hirsch because it’s five weeks from the Breeders’ Cup," the 38-year-old trainer said. "He came out of the Pacific Class in great shape."

Lava Man has great tactical style and was thrust into the lead near the three-eighths pole by Corey Nakatani in the Pacific Classic, opening up turning for home to win by daylight.

"He’s run some of his best races when he pulls away early like that and holds on," O’Neill said. "He kind of puts little dips between him and the other horses, and in those marathon dirt races, it’s hard to really surge home, but when you have a little breathing room, you can usually carry it to the wire."

With a stable of more than 100 horses, O’Neill has more than enough to keep him occupied, even though he has dedicated and talented help, to which he readily relegates authority.

Still, O’Neill hasn’t scrutinized the races of his major Horse of the Year competitors, Preakness and Travers winner Bernardini, and Argentine-bred Invasor, winner of three Grade I races in his three United States starts.

"I haven’t seen a whole lot of all of their races," O’Neill said, "but I did see their most recent races and they look like the horses to beat (in the Classic) if the race was tomorrow. We really need to step it up numbers-wise and speed-wise to compete with those two, but we’re still eight weeks out. If the race was in the next couple of days, we’d be in a little bit deep, but we like the way our horse has been getting the job done. His times haven’t been real fast, but because of that, he’s been coming out of his races in great shape and real fresh-legged. He hasn’t had to run all out in a real fast time. Hopefully, we’re saving that for Breeders’ Cup day.

"It would be incredible for him to be Horse of the Year, but to win an honor like that, he’d have to do it outside his home state, so he’s going to have to perform very, very well at Churchill Downs for that to happen."

The homestretch

O’Neill reports Merv Griffin’s male 2-year-old champion of 2005 Stevie Wonderboy "doing really well" as he readies for a return to the races after recovering from a hairline fracture in his right front leg during a workout at Hollywood Park last Feb. 6. "We’re just going to take it easy with him," O’Neill said. "The Strub series (at Santa Anita starting with the Malibu Stakes Dec. 26) is the goal."

”¡ Bob Baffert, who won seven consecutive Del Mar training titles from 1997 through 2003, on why he maintained a relatively low profile this meet, starting only 55 horses, winning with 12, through 40 days (last year, he started 86, winning 22): "Most of the races have been for Cal-breds, turf horses and claimers, and I’ve got a lot of 3-year-olds but there weren’t many opportunities to run them, so I freshened them up. Plus, I’ve got a lot of 2-year-olds I didn’t run because I’m waiting for later."

”¡ The California Horse Racing Board is accepting applications for potential stewards. Interested? The pay ranges from $197 to $598 a day.

”¡ On T.O., do you get the feeling that Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb are muffling "I told you so" laughs?

”¡ Sure way to beat the Phillies — give them a two-run lead in the eighth.