Lava Man, a winner of more than $5.2 million making his first start in nearly seven months for trainer Doug O'Neill, finished third after a good trip in the 1 1/18-mile turf tussle for California-breds, 2 1/2 lengths behind Mr. Wolverine. Epic Power, winner of the TVG Khaled last year, ran second.
The race, due to the multiple grade I winner Lava Man's star presence, was the featured event on the $1.3 million Cal National Gold Rush program.
“We’ll have to kind of see how he comes out of it and evaluate him then," O'Neill said of his plans for the 7-year-old Lava Man. "It’s kind of hard to tell, but obviously we were expecting a win, so we’re a little disappointed. But as long as he’s fine in the morning, we can battle another race. I thought he looked dynamite early on. He just got a little bit tired.”
Michael Baze rode Mr. Wolverine to the 6-year-old gelding's first stakes victory for trainer Jorge Gutierrez and owners Begue, Dryfus, and Venneri Racing. The winning time, 1:48.51, was more than four seconds off the track mark set by Lava Man of 1:44.26 in winning the Khaled in 2006.
"His attitude was great coming up to the race," Gutierrez said of the winner. "In the paddock I moved him around a couple of times, you could see he was getting aggressive and he’s usually not like that."
Sent off as the 3-2 second choice in the field of six, Lava Man was involved from the start as he pressed pacesetting Epic Power on the outside through soft fractions of :25.39, :50.39, and 1:13.63. On the final turn, Lava Man turned up the pressure on Epic Power, and the pair went on to battle from the top of the stretch. But Mr. Wolverine, never more than about 2 1/2 lengths from the leaders, soon joined the fray on their outside and gradually drew away leaving the furlong marker under Baze's urging.
"The race set up perfect," said Baze. "Those two were just killing each other while we were sitting third outside."
Lava Man, with regular rider Corey Nakatani aboard, could not get past Epic Power and finished three parts of a length behind that one.
"I thought we were in a really good spot, and it was typical of a horse just needing a race," Nakatani said of Lava Man. "He broke sharp, got his feet up under him, and hopefully it will be a good steppingstone to the next one, and he’ll move forward off this race."
Celtic Dreamin, the 13-10 choice, never contended while coming home last.
Bred by Elmer Ramos, Mr. Wolverine is a son of Last Lion—April Mom, by Skywalker. The dark bay improved his record to 4-3-2 in 11 starts and collected $90,000 for his connections. Coming off a second-place finish in the Crystal Water at one mile on the Santa Anita turf March 16, Mr. Wolverine increased his earnings to $273,866.
The winner paid $9, $4.80 and $3.60 as the third choice, topping a $2 exacta worth $51.40 with Epic Power ($7.80, $4), who was ridden by Martin Garcia. Lava Man, in his 29th in-the-money performance in 44 starts, was $3.20 to show.