Ridden by Corey Nakatani for trainer Doug O'Neill, who won the Sunshine Millions Oaks earlier on the card with Mistical Plan, Lava Man won for the 15th time in 36 lifetime starts and went over the $4 million mark in career earnings. The gelded son of Slew City Slew won seven consecutive races last year, including four grade I events as well as the Sunshine Millions Classic, before a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Class - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) cost the gelding national honors.
Back home, 6-year-old Lava Man, the 4-5 favorite in the 10-horse SM Turf, showed no hangover from that poor effort at Churchill Downs. He overtook pacesetter Wild Buddy nearing the quarter pole and inched away to win under urging from Nakatani. Icy Atlantic, ridden by Eibar Coa, split rivals a couple of times in the lane to gain second by a neck over Go Between and David Flores. The winning time for the 1 1/8-mile event was 1:47 3/5 on firm footing.
Nakatani said Lava Man is as good as ever, but didn't care for Churchill Downs.
"I don’t think we’re going to see another horse do what this horse has done," he said. "He’s surpassed John Henry. He’s surpassed many good horses in doing the things he did last year – coming back from the Breeders’ Cup mishap and showing he’s a great horse. He’s a champion, and I’m sure NBC is going to be making a movie about him. If it’s not in the works, hopefully it will be, because I’ve never seen a horse – and I’ve been riding for 20 years now – I’ve never seen a horse win all the major races in California."
Lava Man was put into contention early, racing three wide most of the way as Wild Buddy, pushed by Running Free, set fractions of :23 4/5, :47 4/5 and 1:11 2/5. Lava Man loomed up on the outside to get the lead as Railroad came off the rail to challenge. Lava Man put Railroad away at the eighth pole and wasn't seriously threatened the rest of the way.
A six-time winner on the turf with three seconds in 12 starts, Lava Man could stay on the grass for the time being with a trip to Dubai one possible destination. The only knock on Lava Man has been his inability to win outside of Southern California.
"We’ll have a glass of champagne and talk over grass or dirt and map out his next race, but either way, he’ll be ready," O'Neill said. "He ran dynamite. He exceeded our expectations, despite how well he had been training for this race. The pace wasn’t real strong, he didn’t have everything his own way."
He said two grass races during the World Cup in Dubai on March 31 -- the $5 million Duty Free or the $5 million Sheema Classic – could be next for Lava Man. Asked if the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3 is a consideration, he answered, “Oh, for sure.”
STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood, who claimed Lava Man for $50,000 at Del Mar in August 2004, has seen their charge earn more than $4 million since then, including more than $2.7 million last year. After banking $275,000 Saturday, Lava Man's total earnings stand at $4,079,706.
"His stride doesn’t change on turf or dirt," Nakatani remarked. "It’s just a matter of, when he gets a track he doesn’t like, he doesn’t want to run on it. When horses are good, as this horse is, I think he deserves to be a champion. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a mention for Horse of the Year. He had one bad race last year, and I was really disappointed in the voting, but that’s horse racing at its best.
“There’s no question he’s the best horse I’ve been on. There hasn’t been a horse that’s taken me on the ride that this horse has. When you’re in the moment, you’re just doing what you’re paid to do, but when you look back on it, you get chills. When you watch the race and you hear Trevor calling it, it’s just awesome. It’s just an awesome feeling to be a part of it.”
Lava Man paid $3.40, $3 and $2.20. Icy Atlantic, a 26-1 shot who had beaten only one horse in his previous three starts, returned $16.20 and $9.40 for a $60.40 exacta. Go Between winner of last year's Virginia Derby (gr. IIT), was $4.80 to show.
Railroad finished fourth, followed by Jack's Wild, El Don, Wild Buddy, Super Strut, Running Free and Sherwood Park. Maraquero, Revved Up and Sabre Baby scratched.