Making his first start since weakening to finish last in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) at Nad Al Sheba March 31, the 6-year-old gelding Lava Man carried 124 pounds in defense of his Whittingham victory last year while spotting the winner six pounds. After Market, ridden by Alex Solis, tracked Lava Man into the stretch of the 1 1/4-mile test, and after the California star had grabbed the lead from a pair of runaway pacesetters, then closed powerfully on the outside to win by 1 1/2 lengths in a sizzling 1:58 3/5, one second off the course record.
John Shirreffs trains the 4-year-old After Market, a Pam and Martin Wygod homebred by Storm Cat out of their multiple grade I winning mare Tranquility Lake (Rahy). After Market has registered back-to-back graded stakes wins this spring at Hollywood Park while earning his first grade I triumph.
Valiant Effort, an 80-1 shot also owned by the Wygods, ensured a lively pace, battling Lang Field through brisk fractions of :24 1/5 and :46 2/5 for the first half-mile. The front-runners continued to duel, completing six furlongs in 1:10 1/5 as they opened up a 10-length advantage on the backstretch. With Lava Man and regular pilot Corey Nakatani leading the rest, the field closed rapidly on the final turn. Lava Man swept up to lead on the outside and owned a clear lead in the stretch run. But uncharacteristically, he couldn't hold on in the final furlong as After Market battled on relentlessly under some urging from Solis.
“To beat a horse like Lava Man, you really have to put on your running shoes and he sure did," Solis said. "The main thing I wanted to do was stay close to Lava Man and I had to use my horse a little bit to get there, but that was the right thing to do today. At the top of the stretch I knew it was going to be a dogfight. Lava Man showed his heart as much as he could but my horse showed a lot of determination and it didn't surprise me because I know he's that kind of horse."
It was nearly three lengths back to third-place finisher Obrigado, the French-bred ridden by Jose Valdivia Jr., with the Argentine-bred Fitz Flag fourth.
After Market had failed to hit the board in four starts after winning the Hall of Fame Breeders' Cup (gr. IIT) against sophomores on the Saratoga turf last August -- including three tries in 2007 -- before he scored by two lengths in the Inglewood Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Hollywood April 28. He continued to move forward Saturday in impressive style Saturday for his sixth win in 10 starts. He has earned $463,685 after collecting the $180,000 winning purse.
"The horse ran an unbelievable race, he’s really coming into his form and it is tremendous," said Martin Wygod. "Lava Man made the first move and had the crowd roaring, he took the lead in the stretch, but then Alex took a hold of our horse and got the job done. It’s a bit early to know what’s next, but the Arlington Million (gr. IT) could be a possibility.”
The second choice in the field of eight, the dark bay colt paid $6.80, $3.20 and $2.60, topping a $14.40 exacta with Lava Man, the 9-10 pick who returned $2.40 and $2.20. Obrigado was $3 to show.
Portifido followed Fitz Flag across the wire, with Lang Field, Red Fort and Valiant Effort trailing.
Lava Man, who has earned most of his $4,739,706 on dirt, lost for the first time in three starts on the Hollywood lawn. The setback snapped Lava Man’s nine-race California win streak, which began with the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita on Jan. 28, 2006. His last setback in the state came when he was third in the 2005 Pacific Classic (gr. I).
"I think if he would have had a race under his belt, he would have sustained it," trainer Doug O'Neill said, looking forward to Lava Man's next effort in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) June 30. "But giving away the weight, I thought he ran dynamite. And the winner’s a freak. No doubt about it.”