California’s $5-million gelding Lava Man, who returned to racing after a more than 17-month layoff only to finish last in the San Gabriel Handicap (gr. IIT) Dec. 27 at Santa Anita, has been retired after his failed comeback attempt, it was confirmed on Jan. 5.
Steve Kenly, who co-owns 9-year-old Lava Man with his father and sister, Dave and Tracy, and Jason Wood, said it was a tough decision to retire the star, but after consulting with trainer Doug O’Neill and veterinarian Doug Herthel, the team determined it was the right thing to do.
“He came out of the race sound and he is a strong and sturdy horse, but we don’t want to tarnish his reputation,” Kenly said. “We always said we would only run him if he could compete at the highest level, and I don’t think that is in the cards anymore. It was his first race in a year and half and I’m sure he would improve in his next race, but I think he has lost a step. It was disappointing for all of us because he was training unbelievably.
“If it was any other horse he’d be back running in a couple weeks. To us, this wasn’t a risk from a health standpoint even though we took a lot of criticism. There was no fear in racing him. He is 100% healthy. But I just don’t think he can compete at the level we want him to anymore. In the end, it’s always been about the horse and not the money.”
Kenly said no decision has been made as to where Lava Man will live out his retirement. Currently, he is at The Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif. Kenly said there are several options for Lava Man, which include the Old Friends retirement facility, a second career as a hunter-jumper, or even serving as a stable pony for O’Neill.
“We’re not sure yet. We’re just kind of digesting (the retirement) at this point,” Kenly said. “It’s a win-win situation whatever we do. Before his surgeries, we wouldn’t have had any of these options. Physically, he’s much better off than he was before and we owe that to science.”
Before his comeback, Lava Man last raced in the Eddie Read Handicap (gr. IT) at Del Mar on July 20, 2008, and finished sixth. The connections initially decided to retire him following that race, but after time off at Magali Farm and responding superbly to surgery for bone chips and stem cell and bone marrow injections by Herthel, he was returned to training last September.
Lava Man was supposed to make his comeback in the Native Diver (gr. III) Dec. 12 at Hollywood Park but was scratched due to poor weather conditions. In the San Gabriel, he led for six furlongs before tiring badly in the stretch.
“He may have needed a race, but the fact that he was going so slow at the end and was still trying his eyeballs out told us all we needed to know,” Kenly said. “If we had a crystal ball and knew he’d finish last…of course we wouldn’t want that. But I think it was worth it based on the buzz and excitement he created and the awareness he brought to stem cell therapy.”
Claimed by the Kenlys and Wood for $50,000 back in August, 2004, Lava Man went on to win seven grade I events and earn more money than any other claim in history. The California-bred son of Slew City Slew won the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) three times from 2005-07 and captured the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in 2006 and 2007. The dark bay also won the Charles Wittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT) and Pacific Classic (gr. I) in 2006. He finished his career with 17 wins from 47 starts and earnings of $5,268,706.
Lava Man was bred in California by Lonnie Arterburn and Eve and Kim Kuhlmann. He is out of the Nostalgia’s Star mare Li’l Ms. Leonard.