Lava Man and Mast Track may have accounted for victories in four of the past five renewals of the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), but both have question marks heading into the $100,000 Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood Park Dec. 12.
For the 8-year-old California-bred Lava Man, an earner of $5,268,706 over a 17-for-46 race career, this will be the first start since he was retired with chronic ankle problems following the Eddie Read Handicap (gr. IT) on the Del Mar grass course July 20, 2008. The popular gelding, winner of the Gold Cup from 2005 to 2007 (matching the great Native Diver's feat from 1965-67), responded superbly to surgery for bone chips and stem cell and bone marrow injections, however, and was returned to training with Doug O'Neill in September.
O'Neill has repeatedly expressed his confidence in Lava Man's soundness, although he expects the Slew City Slew gelding to be "a little rusty" in the 1 1/8-mile Native Diver after such a long absence.
“It’s hard to tell how we will do after such a long layoff,” O’Neill said. "He’s training phenomenal. He probably needs a race or two before he’s back at the top-top level, but he’s shown us he’s ready to return to major competition.”
Mast Track, owned by the Bobby Frankel Trust, has lost nine consecutive races since his gate-to-wire win in the 2008 Gold Cup, and he'll be making his first official start for trainer Humberto Ascanio. He comes off a second-place finish to Native Diver entrant Neko Bay in a conditional allowance at Oak Tree Oct. 9.
“I was pleased the way he worked,” said Ascanio, referring to the 5-year-old Mizzen Mast horse's drill of five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Dec. 6. “He has been training real well, and I expect a good effort out of him in the race.”
Six are entered in the Native Diver with the threat of inclement weather hanging over the weekend's racing in Southern California. O'Neill has entered three, including Lava Man, who could be scratched if conditions merit. The anticipated storms were enough to convince trainer Bob Baffert to keep his late-running Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Richard's Kid in the barn in the expectation that additional moisture on Hollywood's Cushion Track would work to the benefit of speed horses.
Lava Man, who was assigned top weight of 118 pounds in the small field, is to be ridden for the first time by Joel Rosario from post 2. O'Neill and Rosario teamed to win last year's Native Diver with Joseph Lacombe's Slew's Tizzy.
Lava Man has seven grade I wins, including the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) twice and the Pacific Classic. Lava Man won the 2005 Gold Cup by a record 8 3/4 lengths, then showed his grit by winning his second and third Gold Cups by a nose under high weight.
“It’s nice to dream about a fourth Gold Cup next summer, but for now I’m just so excited to have him back,” O’Neill added. “He looks like a happy camper, and I can’t wait for Saturday.”
A throwback of sorts, Lava Man registered his other grade I win on turf in the 2006 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap. One start earlier, he set a course record of 1:44.26 for 1 1/8 miles in the TVG Khaled Stakes.
O'Neill's other entrants are Irish import High Court Drama, who beat an optional claiming allowance field on turf in his American debut at Hollywood Nov. 15, and the puzzling Square Eddie, who would make his debut at Hollywood Park.
Square Eddie, one of the leading 2-year-olds in the nation last year for owner J. Paul Reddam following a second-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), is winless in four starts this year.
Following a pair of sprint tries -- resulting in a sixth-place finish in the Ancient Title (gr. I) and a 10th-place showing in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), both at Oak Tree -- the 3-year-old Smart Strike colt returns to a route distance. Square Eddie has not won since taking Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) in October 2008. Garrett Gomez has the call on Square Eddie for the first time.
High Court Drama, a 4-year-old son of Theatrical, won two of 10 starts in Ireland before his transfer to O'Neill by owner Christopher McHale. Michael Baze has the mount on High Court Drama, whose victories overseas came on synthetic tracks.
A speed-favoring track figures to help Tres Borrachos, a front-runner whose three lifetime wins have come at Hollywood, including the 2008 Swaps Stakes (gr. II). The 4-year-old Ecton Park gelding ran second to Rail Trip in the 2009 Gold Cup this summer for trainer Beau Greely. Victor Espinoza takes over the mount. The likely pacesetter drew the far outside post.
Jerry and Ann Moss' 6-year-old Neko Bay returns to Hollywood for trainer John Shirreffs following a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface. Seeking his first stakes triumph, the son of Giant's Causeway has four wins and five seconds in 11 lifetime starts.
$100,000 Native Diver Handicap (gr. III, Race 7, 3:35 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 MIles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Mast Track (KY), R Bejarano, 116, H Ascanio
2. Lava Man (CA), J Rosario, 118, D F O'Neill
3. Square Eddie (ON), G K Gomez, 115, D F O'Neill
4. Neko Bay (KY), M E Smith, 116, J A Shirreffs
5. High Court Drama (IRE), M C Baze, 113, D F O'Neill
6. Tres Borrachos (KY), V Espinoza, 115, C B Greely