Former claiming horse Lava Man poked his head in front on the far turn and inched away for his first graded stakes win in the $250,000 Californian (gr. II) at Hollywood Park Saturday.
Patrick Valenzuela rode the upsetting California-bred Slew City Slew
gelding to victory for trainer Doug O'Neill and owners Steve Kenley and Jason Wood's STD Racing Stable. Lava Man completed the 1 1/8-mile test for handicap horses in 1:47 4/5, defeating Anziyan Royalty by a length while under strong left-handed urging from Valenzuela, who rode the winner for the first time.
It was four lengths back to 33-1 shot Skukuza. Borrego, the 5-2 second choice in the field of seven, ran fourth with 2-1 favorite Choctaw Nation fifth.
The 4-year-old Lava Man, who ran a close second to Rock Hard Ten in the seven-furlong Malibu (gr. I) at Santa Anita Dec. 26 – his graded stakes debut – was coming off a 1 1/2-length win at 1 1/16 miles against optional allowance/claiming foes at Hollywood Park May 14.
"About all I knew about him was that he won his last race and they wanted him to be on the lead," Valenzuela said. "But the lead was taken today. Sometimes you have to call an audible, so we sat second, and it worked out pretty well."
The last California-bred to win the Californian was Eleven Stitches in 1981.
Lava Man pressed the pacesetting Ace Blue in second from the start through fractions of :23 2/5, :47 and 1:10 3/5. At the top of the turn, Lava Man turned up the pressure to get a slight lead, fighting off Anziyan Royalty and Corey Nakatani in the long stretch drive for the victory.
"Lava Man just ran a little better race today," Nakatani said. "Down the road I think (Anziyan Royalty) is going to be getting even a little bit better as he gets a little bit stronger."
The victory was the sixth in 23 starts for Lava Man, who was bred by Lonnie Arterburn and Eve and Kim Kuhlmann. Produced by the Nostalgia's Star mare Li'l Ms. Leonard, Lava Man has now won $458,039. The winner was claimed from Arterburn and partners for $50,000 at Del Mar in August.
"He just looked really, really solid for $50,000," said Dennis O'Neill, the trainer's brother who is also the stable manager. "And then he just kept getting better. We put blinkers on him for the first time last time, and he kind of turned the corner. And the horse just looked so good in the paddock today. I told Patrick 'this is thievery buddy, because we're gonna steal one today.'"
Dennis O'Neill said the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) July 9 is a strong possibility.
Lava Man paid $19.40, $9.20, and $6. Anziyan Royalty returned $8.80 and $6.40, and Skukuza paid $10.80 to show.
Borrego and Choctaw Nation were never involved after showing no early speed.
"It's so hard now to come from off the pace here, and that's his style," said Victor Espinoza, who rode Choctaw Nation. "But he ran good. He started to make his move on the turn, but the other horses never quit."
Choctaw Nation was making his first start since running third in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) in March.
"This was his first race back from Dubai. Dubai might have taken a little bit out of him," Espinoza added. "Like any other horse, and you couldn't expect him to be 100 percent first time back. But I think this race will set him up well for the Gold Cup."
Molengao and Ace Blue trailed.