Until recently, Lava Man was an equine Rodney Dangerfield – he could win big races and big money, but not respect.
Amazing what four grade I wins can do.
All Lava Man has done is sweep all three of California's premier grade I events for older dirt males, plus cruising to a grade I win on turf just for variety. He still has his detractors, of course; he has yet to carry his form outside California, and many argue that the competition he has faced on the West Coast has been weak. But there is no doubting his courage, his consistency, or his ability to get ten furlongs.
Like Lava Man himself, his sire, Slew City Slew
, has waged an uphill battle for respect. Although he retired to stud as a grade I winner and is a son of the great Seattle Slew, his late-maturing history (he did not win his first stakes until age four) and his unfashionable female family made him only moderately attractive as a stallion. Initially standing for $12,500 at Airdrie Stud, his fee drifted down to $5,000 by 1997 and stayed there until 2006, when he was bumped up to $6,000.
Slew City Slew cannot be considered a great stallion, but he has been as solid of a breed-to-race sire anyone could ask for and has consistently turned out winners – 61.8% of his named foals as of Sept. 4. And when he gets the right stuff in his mates, he can turn out a really nice horse. Returns of Prince John (grandsire of his broodmare sire, Berkley Prince) appear to be a strong positive for him, and returns of *Ambiorix (Slew City Slew's fourth damsire) or his close relative *My Babu also appear to be beneficial.
Li'l Ms. Leonard, the dam of Lava Man, never earned black type but was a consistent filly who won eight of her 18 starts. Her sire, Nostalgia's Star, was a tough old campaigner who won stakes from ages two to six, with his biggest win coming in the 1986 Charles H. Strub Stakes (gr. I). He was not a particularly successful stallion, but as a broodmare sire for Slew City Slew, he has a major pedigree plus: he is inbred 3x4 to Prince John via his grandsire, Silent Screen, and Silver Sari, dam of his maternal grandsire, Big Spruce.
Given that the dam of Li'l Ms. Leonard, Pink Native, never raced and had three previous foals that made only ten starts among them without winning, Nostalgia's Star was probably a good choice of mate in terms of soundness and durability. Pink Native was sired by Be a Native, a grade III-winning son of Exclusive Native, out of Pink Khal, a winning daughter of the *Khaled horse Khalex. The next dam, Pinky Jo, was by the good sprinter Rippey out of Candia, by Discovery.
Lava Man is by far the best horse produced from his female line since his seventh dam, Forever, produced the 1928 Belmont Stakes winner, Vito. With his bankroll now up to $3,504,706 and five grade I wins under his belt since being claimed for $50,000 in August 2004, he must also be considered one of the best ex-claimers of all time, though he still has a bit to go to catch all-time leader John Henry (16 grade I wins and $6,591,860) in that department.
Still, a comparison to John Henry is not out of line. At the end of his five-year-old season, John Henry had four grade I wins to his credit along with an Eclipse Award as best turf male, and his best years still lay ahead. A win in the Breeders' Cup Classic–Powered by Dodge (gr. I) would both put Lava Man within easy striking range of John Henry's earnings and would virtually guarantee him Eclipse Awards as champion older male and Horse of the Year. And, as with John Henry, the best may still be yet to come.