Lava Man, a former claiming horse, became the first runner since Native Diver in 1967 to win back-to-back editions of the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) when he won a heart-pounding finish by a nose Saturday over the longest shot in the field, Ace Blue.
The California-bred Lava Man gave Ace Blue a 10-pound weight advantage and was forced to overcome a difficult trip under Corey Nakatani to record his fifth consecutive win this year in the $750,000 Gold Cup. In victory, the 5-year-old Slew City Slew
gelding trained by Doug O'Neill also became the first horse since Affirmed in 1979 to win both the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Gold Cup in the same year.
Native Diver, another California bred, won the Gold Cup in 1965, '66 and '67.
"I'm scared to see the photo; it was such a close finish," O'Neill said immediately after the race. "Corey did such a phenomenal job of not rushing him."
Lava Man won the 2005 Gold Cup by the longest margin in the history of the 1 1/4-mile race -- 8 3/4 lengths -- while carrying Patrick Valenzuela under 118 pounds. One year later, he won the same race by the closest margin in 67 runnings, a short nose, with Nakatani aboard and toting 124 pounds. Not surprisingly, Valenzuela played a major role in nearly beating him.
Valenzuela, aboard the Argentine 5-year-old Magnum and starting from the two-hole on the outside of Lava Man, hustled his mount to the lead when he saw Lava Man break on his knees when the ground gave way under him leaving the gate. That put Lava Man at a disadvantage as he hurried to gain a position along the inside. Valenzuela got clear, however, and angled Magnum to the inside where Lava Man was stuck behind and Magnum could dictate the pace.
With Magnum on the lead and the Brazilian Ace Blue to his immediate outside, Valenzuela slowed things down – :23 4/5 for the opening quarter mile, :48 3/5 for the half and 1:12 2/5 for six furlongs – before Lava Man was able to angle out three or four paths wide on the far turn.
Lava Man was under a ride from the the top of the far turn and he eventually got the better of Magnum, who was carrying 119 pounds. But Ace Blue, who had fallen off the pace battle on the turn, rallied again in the stretch on the outside for Victor Espinoza and was gaining ground with each stride as they approached the wire, losing a head bob in a call that could have gone either way. The final time was 2:01.
"I thought I had it," Nakatani said of the finish. "(Lava Man) was putting his heart out there. Victor was coming, but Lava Man proved he's the best."
Lava Man was cheered enthusiastically in appreciation of the gutsy effort.
Ace Blue came within a whisker of a major upset.
"That was close, man that was close," Espinoza said. "He really ran good, he's really the kind of horse you like to ride. But that was close, one more jump. I thought I was going to get there, but the wire, it just started getting closer and closer."
It was three-quarters of a length back to Super Frolic in third, with Magnum finishing fourth.
"Our horse ran great, he just couldn't switch leads through the stretch," Valenzuela said of Magnum, the second choice. "My horse broke pretty sharp and I elected to take the lead. I tried to slow it down as much as I could."
Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) winner Seek Gold ran last in the field of five.
Lava Man was moved to a detention barn at Hollywood Park 24 hours before the race because O'Neill is serving a 30-day penalty after another of his horses was found to have an excess of total carbon dioxide in a post-race blood test on May 27. O'Neill, whose penalty ends July 13, won his third Gold Cup in three tries. He previously won with Sky Jack in 2002.
"To be taken out of his environment and placed in a totally different barn, it wasn't easy," O'Neill said. "It does feel a little more special."
O'Neill said the start caused him anxiety.
"That was scary," he said. "After the stumble, from the rail, it looked like it was going to shape up to where we were going to get stuck inside. Corey did such a good job of not rushing him and letting him get his feet under him and finding that perfect position down the backstretch. It changed the race a lot. They went in :48 and change. If he doesn't stumble, he's doing that easy."
Nakatani broke an 0-for-10 streak in the Gold Cup.
"This horse has the heart of a champ, no doubt," Nakatani said. "He's shown that he's versatile, he does whatever you ask him to do. Turf, dirt . . . what more can you ask of him?"
Since being claimed for $50,000 by O'Neill for owners STD Racing Stable (Steve Kenly, Dave Kenly and his wife Tracy) and Jason Wood at Del Mar August 13, 2004, Lava Man has won nine of 19 starts. His $450,000 winner's share Saturday pushed him past Budroyale ($2,840,810) as the richest claiming horse ever. After beginning his career with a fourth-place finish in a $12,500 maiden claiming race at Stockton in June 2003, the magnificent Lava Man has compiled a career record of 12-7-9 in 32 starts with earnings of $2,904,706.
Among his five wins In 2005, Lava Man has captured two $1 million races – the Sunshine Millions Classic and the Big 'Cap - the Gold Cup repeat, and a grade I victory on the grass in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT). Only Exceller in 1978 had previously won the Gold Cup and the Whittingham, then known as the Hollywood Turf Handicap, in the same year. His earnings this season have reached $1.87 million.
The owners are hoping Lava Man's storybook campaign finishes with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs. Although Lava Man is not nominated, he can be supplemented for $150,000 under new rules for late entries.
"Hopefully we're in that situation where he's rolling right along and we want to write the check," said Steve Kenly, who was instrumental in the claim.
Lava Man paid $3.20, $2.60, and $2.10. Ace Blue, conditioned by Jerry Hollendorfer for Sid and Jenny Craig, returned $7 and $2.10 as a 24-1 shot. Super Frolic, ridden by Jon Court, used a strong rally along the inside to get third and was $2.10 to show.