The grade I winner Lava Man flashed his former brilliance with a sweeping 2 1/4-length victory in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic to conclude the rich program for California and Florida-bred horses at Santa Anita Park Saturday.
The 5-year-old California-bred gelding, ridden by Corey Nakatani for trainer Doug O'Neill and owners Steve, Tracy and David Kenly's STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood, seized the lead in upper stretch and drew away under urging before a crowd of 32,116 in a so-so time of 1:49 4/5 for the 1 1/8-mile event.
The millionaire Lava Man, who had won the Californian (gr. II) in June and Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) by an astounding 8 3/4 lengths a month later, has not been the same since giving up a big lead in the stretch and finishing third to Borrego in Del Mar's Pacific Classic six weeks after the Hollywood Gold Cup.
He traveled to New York where he was eased after a wide trip in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park last fall, finishing seventh, more than 45 lengths behind Borrego. Then he weakened to 11th in the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) at Tokyo, beaten by more than 17 lengths in his last start Nov. 26.
O'Neill admitted he was among those who doubted that Lava Man could recapture his form.
"Sure, he was training great but after they run a couple clunkers . . . this game is full of excuses when you don't run good and I was just worried that maybe I was making up too many whoppers," O'Neill said. "But he finally ran like he had been training."
He said that, after last year's nightmares with shipping Lava Man cross country and to Japan, he'd like to keep his dark bay home for the March 4 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I).
A couple of late closers, the Florida-bred Whos Crying Now, and the Californian Texcess, came on for second and third place with 2005 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Buzzards Bay finishing fourth as the 2-1 favorite in the 12-horse field.
Whos Crying Now, ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, clinched Florida's fourth win in as many Sunshine Millions events with his runner-up showing. Florida won the eight-race competition, 39-37, the closest finish yet.
Malibu Stakes (gr. I) winner Proud Tower Too, with Trickey Trevor, a winner of three straight for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on the outside, stepped a lively pace of :21 4/5, :44 4/5 and 1:08 3/5 as they battled nose and nose for the lead over a spread-out field. Trickey Trevor finally got the better of the pace duel as Proud Tower Too dropped back.
But coming off the far turn, it was clear that Lava Man - who had been stalking in the second flight of horses about six lengths from the leader - was going to be difficult to beat. The son of Slew City Slew
swept past Trickey Trevor and fellow stalker McCann's Mojave with little resistance while three wide and pulled well clear of the others while drifting in a bit through the lane. Whos Crying Now, Texcess, and Buzzards Bay all rallied but were too late.
Nakatani said the race worked out just as he and O'Neill drew it up.
"We wanted to make them run, make them commit to go by you, get to the outside and then put in a very nice run, and that's exactly what happened," said Nakatani.
That wasn't quite the way O'Neill recalled it.
"Actually, I'd be lying if I said the race played out the way I thought it would," he said, noting the track's speed bias. "I thought we'd be closer."
The victory, worth $550,000, was the eighth in 28 starts for Lava Man and pushed his earning to $1,534,706. Lonnie Arteburn and Eve and Kim Kuhlmann bred the Lava Man, who is out of the Nostalgia's Star mare Li'l Ms. Leonard.
The 5-2 second choice paid $7.80, $5.40, and $4.40 to win, with Whos Crying Now ($9.60, $6.20) combining for a $95.40 exacta. Texcess, still seeking his first win since the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot in December 2004, was $7.60 to show.
After Buzzards Bay, now winless in five starts since his victory in the Santa Anita Derby, came Supervisor, McCann's Mojave, Trickey Trevor, Wild Buddy, Desert Boom, Super Strut, Proud Tower Too, and B.B. Best.
On-track handle at Santa Anita totaled $4,569,653, way up from last year's Sunshine Million total of $3,928,356.