Lava Man's reputation may have been tarnished in back-to-back off the board finishes, but trainer Doug O'Neill hopes the lifetime winner of $5.2 million can begin to re-establish himself as the state’s leading handicap horse.
“He’s doing great,” O’Neill said of the 6-year-old son of Slew City Slew during the morning draw breakfast Oct. 31 for the 18th California Cup hosted by the Oak Tree Racing Association. “He worked Sunday (six furlongs in 1:13.20) and came out of it good.”
Lava Man, North America’s leading active money earner with $5,214,706, finished sixth in both the Pacific Classic (gr. I) on Del Mar’s Polytrack Aug. 19 and the Oak Tree Mile (gr. IIT) on turf Oct. 7. Owned by the STD Racing Stable of Steve and David Kenly and Jason Wood, Lava Man has been assigned high weight of 124 pounds in the Cal Cup Classic, spotting five pounds to 5-1 morning line second choice Bold Chieftain.
Corey Nakatani has the ride on Lava Man. They team for their 16th consecutive start.
Although he has won the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) three times, the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) twice and the Pacific Classic (gr. I) -- including a sweep of those races in 2006 -- Lava Man’s only victory in seven races restricted to California-breds came in last year’s Khaled Stakes at Hollywood Park, and that was on grass.
Lava Man ran in the Cal Cup only once before, in the 2004 Classic. At odds of 25-1, he finished second by three-quarters of a length to Cozy Guy. That race, two months after being claimed by O'Neill for $50,000, presaged Lava Man’s star turn as racing’s most productive claim.
O'Neill said his assistant, Leandro Mora, has tried to perk up Lava Man for his morning workouts by moving the veteran gelding to the training track.
“We’ve tried something new, exercising Lava Man on Hollywood Park’s training track,” said O’Neill. “I think this has livened Lava Man up a little.”
Asked if Lava Man was under pressure to show his old form, O’Neill said, “The pressure is on me because I speak for Lava Man, and I don’t want to embarrass him. He’s sound and he should run a big race Saturday. If not, maybe he’ll need a little breather.
“We haven’t talked about any long-range plans. It’s kind of the old cliche, but we’re taking it one race at a time. We’ll see how things go Saturday and take it from there.”
Lava Man will be competing for the first time on Santa Anita's new Polytrack surface.
A field of 11 was entered for the 1 1/8-mile Classic, the centerpiece of the Cal Cup program -- 10 stakes races exclusively for California-breds and worth a total of $1,325,000.
Multiple-stakes winning Bold Chieftain, a 4-year-old colt from the Northern California stable of William Morey, Jr., ships south with Russell Baze, North America’s winningest rider. Bold Chieftain brings a 6-2-2 record in 12 starts for earnings of $315,775.
A 3-year-old gelding trained by Rafael Becerra for K.K. Sengara, Celtic Dreamin’s only loss in six starts was by a nose, and he most recently ran away with the British Columbia Derby (Can-III) on Sept. 23 at Hastings Park by 5 1/2 lengths. Garrett Gomez, the nation’s leading rider who returned to Southern California from the East last weekend, has the mount.
With a purse of $175,000, the John C. Mabee Cal Cup Mile on turf is the day’s second-richest race. It drew 12 starters. Defending champion Epic Power is the co-high weight with Now Victory at 121 pounds. Nakatani handles Epic Power for trainer Jack Carava.
Epic Power, a 6-year-old gelding, has raced 49 times, winning 12. The consistent bay son of Epic Honor has 31 in-the-money performances with earnings of $574,527. He finished second in his last start Aug. 3 in the Cal Dreamin’ Handicap at Del Mar.
Three of the events carry purses of $150,000: the CTT/TOC Matron, for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles; the John Deere Distaff, for fillies and mares at 6 1/2 furlongs on turf; and the Dodge/Don Valpredo Sprint at six furlongs.
Somethinaboutlaura, the defending champion and 124-pound high-weight among eight entrants in the Matron, has won her last four starts, including the A Gleam Handicap (gr. II) at Hollywood Park. Victor Espinoza rides trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s 5-year-old mare. Somethinaboutlaura possesses a sparkling career record of 16 victories in 28 starts for earnings of $960,865.
Grade I winner Dancing Edie, fresh off a win in Oak Tree’s Senator Ken Maddy Handicap (gr. IIIT), is the 124-pound high-weight among 10 entrants in the Distaff. The six-furlong Sprint is headed by 121-pound high-weight Bilo, a 7-year-old gelding who won Hollywood Park’s Triple Bend Handicap (gr. I) July 7.
$250,000 California Cup Classic (Race 10, 4:30 p.m.), 3 & Up, California-breds, 1 1/8 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1. Rush With Thunder, 114, Omar A. Berrio, 12/1
2. Freesgood, 113, Mike E. Smith, 20/1
3. Cheroot, 118, Martin A. Pedroza, 10/1
4. Celtic Dreamin, 115, Garrett K. Gomez, 8/1
5. Tiz Afire, 116, Joseph Talamo, 12/1
6. Add Heat, 114, Tyler Baze, 12/1
7. Valiant Effort, 114, Alex O. Solis, 12/1
8. Seminole Native, 114, Brice Blanc, 10/1
9. A Gallant Discover, 115, Richard Migliore, 15/1
10. Lava Man, 124, Corey S. Nakatani, 7/5
11. Bold Chieftain, 119, Russell A. Baze, 5/1