The 6-year-old California-bred gelding took the lead in the $750,00 event from the pacesetter A. P. Xcellent coming off the final turn but the challenger fought back along the inside to put a head in front mid-stretch. The two warriors showed nothing but heart from there. Corey Nakatani, head down, put his whip away and got the job done with a vigorous hand ride as A. P. Xcellent, under heavy left-handed pressure from Mike Smith, kept driving. The winning time for the 10-furlong distance, 2:03 1/5, is a record for Hollywood's Cushion Track.
"What a race, huh?" Nakatani said. "He's gutsy and just wouldn't give up. All I can say is, Wow!"'
The beloved Native Diver, nicknamed "The Black Bullet," is buried at the Hollywood Park paddock.
"This meant a lot," co-owner Steve Kenly said. "To tie a record like that is something."
It was Lava Man's first race on Hollywood's synthetic all-weather track and he was sent off at odds of 7-5. He carried top weight of 124 pounds, nine more than the runner-up.
Lava Man, who was coming off a second-place finish in the 1 1/4-mile Charles Whittingham Handicap (gr. IT) on the grass -- a race won in 1:58 3/5 -- returned to the winner's circle for the first time since the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 3. The dark bay son of Slew City Slew, racing's all-time greatest claim, went over the $5 million mark in earnings with his 17th career win, which was worth $450,000 for owners STD Racing and Jason Wood.
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 he has won the Gold Cup three times, the Santa Anita Handicap twice and the Pacific Classic (gr. I) once. O'Neill was vacationing in Ireland Saturday. Leandro Mora, Doug O’Neill's top assistant, saddled the winner.
Lava Man won the Gold Cup in 2005 by a record 8 3/4 lengths and a year ago by a nose over Ace Blue.
"He's done so much and every time he does it, you're like, 'Wow, that's crazy,' and then he does something more," co-owner Jason Wood said. "So here we sit, three-peat of the Gold Cup."
"This was a race that kind of defined him two years ago when he burst on the scene," Kenly said. "We were happy to be in this race two years ago."
Native Diver won the Hollywood Gold Cup consecutively from 1965-67. Among the dignitaries in the winner's circle afterward was Jerry Lambert, Native Diver's regular pilot.
Lava Man got away to a great start, tracking A. P. Xcellent out of the gate on the outside as the front-runner took a three-length lead on clubhouse turn. A. P. Xcellent carved moderate fractions -- :24, :48 3/5 for the half-mile and 1:13 1/5 for six furlongs -- under Smith, but Lava Man continued to draw closer on the far turn. Lava Man put a head in front briefly but A. P. Xcellent cut the turn beautifully and was soon back on even terms, eventually inching back to the front. But the relentless Lava Man was the more determined competitor in the final strides.
"When a horse digs in like mine, usually that outside horse will fold a little," Smith said of the runner-up finish. "That's what I needed him to do, but he didn't do it, he kept coming back at me. Both horses were really duking it out and throwing it down."
Big Booster, a 24-1 shot ridden by Michael Baze -- flew late to finish third, three-quarters of a length behind.
In 40 lifetime starts, Lava Man has amassed a record of 17-8-3 with earnings of $5,189,706.
Yet for most of the wagering, Lava Man was not favored. The Brazilian Molengao, a fast-closing second to Lava Man in the Big 'Cap who returned to win Hollywood's Mervyn Leroy Handicap (gr. II) by 4 1/2 lengths, was the choice of the bettors until shortly before post time, when he clicked to 8-5. Molengao, devoid of early speed for Victor Espinoza, was picking off his rivals on the final turn and seemed likely to join the front-runners in the stretch, but he failed to kick on in the final furlong as 24-1 Big Booster surged past on the outside. Molengao ended up in a dead-heat for fourth with 51-1 Bobby Frankel trainee Porfido.
O'Neill listened to the race from Ireland.
Cheers went up from the crowd when Lava Man was posted as the winner of the photo finish. Nakatani had no doubt about the outcome, waving his whip right-handed after crossing the wire. Though close in wagering, Lava Man was the clear hero of the fans.
They surged around the paddock to watch him being saddled, and applauded him as he made his way to the track.
"If we weren't a part of him, we'd appreciate him because we're racing fans," Wood said. "He is such a draw. The fan support is unbelievable."
The only knock on Lava Man is his 0-for-5 road record, which included a 16th-place finish in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) on the grass in March.
"I hate traveling and apparently he does too," Wood said, adding that he can live with Lava Man's failures outside California.
Next up for Lava Man is defending his title in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.
Lava Man paid $4.80, $3 and $2.10. The resilient A. P. Xcellent, coming off a third-place finish after setting the pace in the Californian (gr. II) June 2, returned $7.40 and $4.80 and completed a $37.40 exacta. Big Booster, a Mike Mitchell claim for $62,500 in February at Gulfstream Park, was $8.40 to show.
It was more than four lengths back to Porfido and Molengao in fourth, followed by A. P. Arrow, Saint Stephen, Wilko and My Creed.