Lava Man, attempting to match legendary Native Diver with his third consecutive victory in Saturday’s $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), will face eight rivals in the 1 1/4-mile classic at Hollywood Park.
Lava Man, owned by STD Racing and Jason Wood, drew the eight-post when entries were taken for the Gold Cup Wednesday morning. The richest horse following a claim in history, the 6-year-old gelding enters the Gold Cup with 16 wins and earnings of $4,739,706 in 39 starts. He would surpass the $5 million mark with a victory.
All but $98,603 has come since trainer Doug O’Neill claimed Lava Man for $50,000 from his 13th start on Aug. 13, 2004, at Del Mar. Since then the California-bred son of Slew City Slew has won the Gold Cup twice, the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) twice and the Pacific Classic (gr. I) once.
Lava Man, who will carry high weight of 124 pounds in this year's Gold Cup, won it in 2005 by a record 8 3/4 lengths and a year ago by a nose. He will be conceding from four to 12 pounds to his rivals on Saturday. Leandro Mora, Doug O’Neill's top assistant, will saddle Lava Man in his date with destiny.
“Doug is vacationing in Ireland with his wife and mother and won‘t be back until Monday,” explained Dennis O’Neill, assistant to his brother. “They planned the trip in January and were locked into those dates."
Lava Man, who became the richest claimer with his victory in the 2006 Gold Cup, finished second most recently while running 10 furlongs on turf in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT), a race he won last year. The effort signaled he is back in form after a disappointing effort in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) in March.
“You know it's funny because it was a little disappointing afterward, but coming back off that race in Dubai, knowing how well he was doing over there and how bad he ran, it was a huge sigh of relief,” said Dennis O’Neill. “He ran huge.”
Lava Man has become a California sensation since being claimed, winning grade I races on dirt and turf. He set a course record of 1:44.26 for 1 1/8 miles in the 2006 TVG Khaled Stakes at Hollywood Park. Claimed at the behest of Steve Kenly, he has won 13 of 26 starts since then, including nine straight races in California prior to the second to After Market in the Whittingham.
The O’Neill brothers never saw Native Diver run, but they are well aware of “The Black Bullet” and his 40-year-old record.
“You know the legend of Native Diver,” Dennis O’Neill said. “There's a lot of pressure going into this race because that is a really, really big thing, especially in California. I mean that horse is a legend out here and to accomplish something like that, I know Doug was really, really excited and yet nervous about what an incredible accomplishment it would be to do this three years in a row.”
“I mean if he's that good a horse and he's supposed to be up there with Native Diver and those types of horses, then he's going to win. Obviously, we're a little biased, but we sure think he's an awfully, awfully good horse. He's been very, very consistent in California and he's turning into a little legend out here. So, hopefully, he comes through Saturday, but if it's not supposed to be, then it won't.“
Molengao, attempting to join Siphon (1996) as the only Brazilian-bred to win the Gold Cup, appears to be the main threat to Lava Man. He was beaten by less than one length by Lava Man in the Santa Anita Handicap, then cruised to a 4 1/2-length victory here in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II) on May 5.
Trainer Paulo Lobo has difficulty separating his last two races.
“It's tough because the race when he got beat by Lava Man, for my eyes, he overcame a very difficult situation because he ran against a very slow pace and he was the only one that was covering ground,” he said. “And I like it the way that he overcame and ran huge that day in the second place to Lava Man. But of course, the last race was an amazing race. I brought him (to the Gold Cup) fresh from the Mervyn LeRoy. Since that race, he has been doing very well.”
The 6-year-old chestnut, winner of the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) in February in his only other start of 2007, enters the Gold Cup with a lifetime record of five wins in 15 starts and earnings of $588,477.
Molengao was troubled by tender ankles in 2006, and like Lava Man, he has flourished while training on Hollywood Park’s synthetic surface known as Cushion Track.
“I think I have been here in California for six years and I think it's the best thing that people have done for the races here,” Lobo said. “I think it is great for the horses.”
A.P. Xcellent, third in The Californian (gr. II) after dueling on the front end and putting away Kip Deville, has won three of four starts on Cushion Track. Mike Smith will be aboard the son of A.P. Indy for the first time in the Gold Cup. Smith connected three years ago on longshot Total Impact.
Eastern shipper A.P. Arrow, another son of A.P. Indy, won the Skip Away Handicap (gr. III) March 31 at Gulfstream, then finished third in the Birdstone at Belmont Park following a two-month layoff. The Todd Pletcher-trained horse has won four of 17 starts for earnings of $611,209.
Saint Stephen, a winner of seven of 27 starts and $313,214 for New York-based trainer Christophe Clement, shipped here to win the Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) on Cushion Track last fall. He returned for The Californian and finished sixth, beaten six lengths.
J. Paul Reddam’s Wilko will be trying to win for the first time in 18 starts since capturing the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Lone Star Park. He has flirted with top horses since then, posting third-place finishes in the 2004 Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), the 2005 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), the 2006 Big ’Cap and the 2006 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I).
Big Booster, a $62,500 claim at Gulfstream Park in February, was an impressive allowance winner on Cushion Track here May 24; My Creed ships south after winning the Berkeley Handicap (gr. III) at Golden Gate Fields, and Porfido finished fifth last outing in the Whittingham.
The Gold Cup will run as the tenth of eleven races on Saturday’s program at Hollywood Park with a 4:50 post time. First post time is at 12 noon.
On the undercard, 9-year-old sensation The Tin Man will aim for an unprecedented third victory in the $250,000 American Handicap. He won the Shoemaker Breeders’ Cup Mile in his 2007 debut on Memorial Day.
$750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), Race 10, 4:50 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (Cushion Track)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. My Creed (KY), 117, Russell A. Baze
2. A. P. Xcellent (KY), 115, Mike E. Smith
3. Saint Stephen (KY), 115, Jose Valdivia, Jr.
4. Porfido (CHI), 112, Joel Rosario
5. Molengao (BRZ), 120, Victor Espinoza
6. Wilko (KY), 115, Joseph Talamo
7. A. P. Arrow (KY), 116, David R. Flores
8. Lava Man (CA), 124, Corey S. Nakatani
9. Big Booster (KY), 113, Michael C. Baze