The paths of the two California-bred Thoroughbreds crossed like ships in the night Saturday when 7-10 favorite Lava Man won the $500,000 San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita and a rejuvenated McCann’s Mojave captured the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at odds of 33-1 at Gulfstream Park.
The events occurred 3,000 miles apart in distance and 27 minutes apart in time. The win for Lava Man, the greatest claim ever at $50,000 by Doug O'Neill for STD Racing and Jason Wood, pushed the gelding's career earnings over the $4 million mark. The surreal triumph of McCann’s Mojave unleashed a wave of emotions from the horse’s owner, Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman.
For the 50-year-old Willman, the 1:49.89 it took McCann’s Mojave to negotiate the 1 1/8 miles of the Classic was a life-changing moment, and not necessarily because Willman grossed $550,000 from the victory.
Not only had Willman endured a personal ordeal in recent months, but McCann’s Mojave’s racing fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. The 7-year-old son of Memo was sent to the Bay Area under the care of trainer Steve Specht in the hope it would spark a return to his old form. It did when McCann’s Mojave won back-to-back races there, but the horse was taking a big step up in the 'Millions Classic.
“I honestly did say the last couple weeks that I really and truly thought my horse ran the best race of his life on opening day at Golden Gate going a mile and a sixteenth, because of the way he did it,” Willman said at a press conference at Santa Anita Saturday. “He was professional for once. For the longest time, I’ve been in a quandary as to what he is, a late-running sprinter or a front-running miler. Steve Specht has done a tremendous job with him. I made a lot of money with the horse when Paddy Gallagher trained him, and Paddy and I are the best of friends. He brought the horse down to earth around the barn and made him more manageable.
“But the horse tailed off and I wanted to get him into a new environment where the mornings were cold and the routine was a little different. I wanted to try something to shake things up before I had to sell him. I went through a divorce, I’m raising two boys (Matthew, 4, and Jason, 8), and my life has been a nightmare since last summer, on a personal side. Financially, I’m in tight. I had to borrow a lot of money to get some things done and make sure I had my kids and was able to hold on to my house.
“Winning a race like this under these conditions is unbelievable—that’s all I can say.”
It's unlikely that McCann’s Mojave would meet Lava Man again. Lava Man defeated McCann’s Mojave by seven lengths in the 2006 Sunshine Millions Classic.
“I’ve seen enough of Lava Man,” Willman said.
But not nearly enough of McCann’s Mojave. Willman, who never lost faith in the old horse, has 550,000 more reasons to keep him going.