Lava Man soldiers on despite groom’s grim accident

August 14, 2007 8:35 AM
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No one could blame Doug O’Neill for complaining. He lost one brother to cancer and helped another fight the disease. On Sunday, O’Neill lost gregarious owner and entertainment magnate Merv Griffin to prostrate cancer at the age of 82. On July 23, the groom of O’Neill’s greatest horse, Lava Man, lost his left arm when rear-ended by a drunk driver.

Those tragedies are reason enough for O’Neill to shrug off a disappointing start at Del Mar. Business has picked up, but when it comes to calamities and winning races, it’s easy for the 39-year-old trainer to keep life in perspective. O’Neill is one nice guy who doesn’t finish last—at least not very often.

You win some and lose some in racing, and O’Neill has won plenty. In just over a dozen years, the Michigan native has become a national presence, reaching a plateau with Todd Pletcher, Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert.

Unfortunately, the ladder to the top has been fraught with life and death ordeals. O’Neill lost his older brother, Danny, to melanoma 10 years ago. Doug’s brother and business partner, Dennis, 44, has successfully battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Currently, Team O’Neill is fighting the good fight on behalf of Noe Garcia, whose arm was severed in an early morning accident on Interstate 5 near Del Mar.

Garcia is the groom of racing’s greatest claim, Lava Man, a California-bred gelding who has earned $5,189,706 on 17 wins from 40 career starts. He has earned more money than any horse in his history after being claimed—$5,091,103—since he was taken for $50,000 at Del Mar in 2004. Next up: the $1 million Pacific Classic on Saturday.

"He’s doing OK," O’Neill said of Garcia, choosing his words carefully. "He’s struggling a little bit, and we’re just trying to get him as much physical and social therapy and rehab. He’s also exploring legal issues, trying to prosecute the guy who hit him. Lava Man is doing fantastic, although we all thought he was a little depressed when Noe (pronounced NO way) wasn’t around. But everyone at the barn seemed depressed right after.

"Now we’re more comfortable and Lava Man is looking brighter and happier and doing really well. He’s galloping like he did at Hollywood Park, although not as fast, but longer in distance, and we’re very happy with how things are leading up to the Pacific Classic."

The Pacific Classic, which Lava Man won last year, is the barn’s immediate priority, but Garcia’s well-being, understandably, consumes all.

A website has been developed for the 39-year-old Garcia, a native of Guatemala, in the hope it will defray voluminous medical expenses. The site is called lavamanshero.com.

"Noe had no medical insurance, and even though he received great care, the hospital hustled him out as soon as it could," O’Neill explained. "He’s at home with no arm and a list of instructions on where he should go for rehab.

"He has a wife and four kids and has been with me for 11 years. He’s just a really good, quiet guy who really doesn’t say boo. I’d say hi to him every morning, of course, but he didn’t have the strongest confidence in English, and my Spanish is not the greatest. So there was a lot of sign language, but he’s a brilliant groom and always knew what to do. We’re looking forward to getting him back real soon."

As any pet owner knows, people and animals bond readily. Garcia and Lava Man were no exception.

"There are some horses that only their groom can catch when he goes into the stall, although Lava Man is pretty good that way," O’Neill said. "He’ll let just about anyone catch him, but he can be a real handful at other times, and Noe definitely knows his idiosyncrasies, especially caring for his feet. Lava Man’s foot issues have been well-documented. They need non-stop attention and care and Noe knows them better than anybody, except for maybe (farrier) Jimmy Jiminez. So Noe not being with Lava Man creates a huge void right now, but our main focus is on Noe’s mental and physical recovery and getting him back to the barn ASAP."

It would mean a lot to Lava Man, because barring the unforeseen, the 6-year-old son of Slew City Slew could compete for a long time.

"Knock on wood, God, yeah, he’d run next year," O’Neill said. "As long as he stays happy and healthy and shows what he’s been showing, there’s no reason to take him out if he continues to be so willing. He seems happy."

Whether he’s happy enough to run well outside of California, where he has never won, remains to be seen. After Lava Man finished 16th by 29 ½ lengths in the Dubai Duty Free on turf last March 31, O’Neill and owners Steve and David Kenly and Jason Wood ruled out any further out of state excursions. That would seem to include the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., on Oct. 27. But hold the phone.

"If he gets through the Pacific Classic and he runs well and comes out of it good, it will be up to the owners," O’Neill said about running in the Breeders’ Cup. "We were all pretty much in agreement after the Dubai debacle that he would never leave California again, but you never say never in this game. If he’s doing good and the right opportunity arises, we’ll have to play it by ear."

The homestretch

”¡ Griffin was looking forward to seeing his stakes-winning Cobalt Blue run at Del Mar.

"I’m getting him ready, but I’m not sure for what race," O’Neill said. "Polytrack is much more tiring than Cushion Track (where O’Neill is based at Hollywood Park, and is being installed at Santa Anita)," O’Neill said. "But Polytrack is great for Del Mar, when you consider how many horses were hurt on its dirt track in years past. As long as the horses come back safe, that’s most important."

”¡ I thought a "person of interest" was an interesting person. These days, it’s a politically correct euphemism for "suspect."