Lava Man, the most prosperous claiming purchase in racing history, will be out to lay claim to another distinction on Saturday when the 6-year-old gelding will be an overwhelming favorite to win a second $1 million Santa Anita Handicap presented by San Manual Indian Bingo & Casino (gr. I).
If successful, the 4-5 morning line favorite among nine entrants in the 70th Big ’Cap would have something more in common with John Henry on the 25th anniversary of that rags-to-riches racing legend becoming the first repeat winner of the 1 1/4-mile event that began as the sport’s first “hundred-grander.”
By adding the winner’s share of $600,000, Lava Man’s earnings since being claimed for $50,000 by STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood at Del Mar in August of 2004 would become $4,581,103. His career total would reach $4,682,706 from 16 victories in 36 starts, 12 of the wins coming since being haltered by trainer Doug O’Neill.
The parallel to John Henry, whom Sam Rubin purchased sight unseen for $25,000 in 1978, is dramatic. While going on to earn $6,591,680 from 39 wins on both dirt and grass in 83 starts, the gelded son of Old Bob Bowers was retired at the age of 9. Lava Man, a winner of 7 of 8 starts and $2,770,000 last year, began his sixth year with a handy victory in Santa Anita’s Jan. 27 Sunshine Millions Turf.
“He’s a champion,” regular rider Corey Nakatani exclaimed afterward. “I’ve been riding for 20 years now, and there hasn’t been a horse that has taken me on a ride like this one has. I’ll be telling his story to my grandkids one day.”
Despite his growing eminence and high weight of 124 pounds, California-bred Lava Man hasn’t scared off many competitors. Santa Anita will honor
“We feel like we’ve got him right for Saturday,” O’Neill said Wednesday after the bay son of Slew City Slew drew post position No. 7.
Saturday, Santa Anita will honor John Henry, who was joined as a dual Big ’Cap winner by Milwaukee Brew in 2003.
Three other stakes races will be contested on the 11-race John Henry Day that gets underway at noon. The Santa Anita Handicap will go as the 10th race. The $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), formerly the Santa Catalina, will bring out several of the nation’s most promising 3-year-olds who will be asked to cover 1 1/16 miles as they gear up for the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on Saturday. Other stakes include the $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile(gr. IT) on turf and the $75,000 China Dolls Stakes at one mile on turf for 3-year-old fillies.
As a winner of the Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds on Feb. 3, Arson Squad will attempt to follow 10 Strub winners who added the Big ’Cap, including such champions as Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and Alysheba. The second high weight at 117 pounds and second choice at odds of 9-2, Arson Squad’s earnings reached $564,450 with his win in the Strub, his fifth victory in 11 starts.
The Big ’Cap will be his first test at racing’s classic distance. Bruce Headley, who trains the Pennsylvania-bred for the Jay Em Ess Stable of Mace and Samantha Siegel, expects Arson Squad to be able to handle the distance “because he’s a finisher.” Headley added that the presence of jockey Garrett Gomez is another significant factor in his runner’s chances of winning. Leading rider Gomez has won 12 stakes at the meet.
McCann’s Mojave, stunning 33-1 winner of the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 27, is pursuing the trail forged by Lava Man last year when his remarkable 2006 streak began with victories in the two million-dollar events.
Northern California-based Steve Specht, who trains the 7-year-old homebred for Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman, thinks Lava Man is vulnerable. “You can’t take anything away from Lava Man,” Specht said recently, “but he’s not a horse like Secretariat or Spectacular Bid, horses that were so monstrous. He’s beaten some of the same horses that we’ve beaten.” With earnings of $1,174,955 from 10 wins in 24 races, McCann’s Mojave is the second most accomplished starter.
$1 Million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, Race 10, 4:30 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. Awesome Gem (KY), 116, Tyler Baze
2. El Roblar (KY), 114, Richard Migliore
3. Boboman (KY), 115, Alex O. Solis
4. Ball Four (KY), 116, Julien R. Leparoux
5. Spring At Last (KY), 115, David R. Flores
6. Molengao (BRZ), 116, Victor Espinoza
7. Lava Man (CA), 124, Corey S. Nakatani
8. Arson Squad (PA), 117, Garrett K. Gomez
9. McCann's Mojave (CA), 115, Frank T. Alvarado