Steve Haskin Commentary: Lava Man a Treasure to be Shared

Steve Haskin Commentary: Lava Man a Treasure to be Shared
Photo: Benoit
Lava Man and Corey Nakatani in the Winner's Circle after the 2007 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Order This Photo
We all know about Lava Man’s dislike for any track east of the Sierra Madres and west of Santa Catalina. And we know his speed figures are not exactly in orbit. And we know he hasn’t been beating champions in the Golden State. But Lava Man nonetheless is a true phenomenon, and America needs him badly.

Yes, America, not just California. Sure, Lava Man can remain cloistered in the friendly confines of Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and Del Mar for the remainder of his remarkable career. After five disastrous sojourns back East, and to Japan and Dubai, it seems as if trainer Doug O’Neill and owners Steve Kenly, his father Dave, and Jason Wood have all but conceded the fact that Lava Man is the antithesis of the road warrior, and are content to keep him home.

On one hand, you can’t blame them for thinking that way. Lava Man not only is winless outside California, he’s run horribly. But is five races enough to throw in the towel, especially when there were extenuating circumstances in most of them? What if Lava Man does have a big race in him out of town and we never find out about it?

Let’s remember that Monmouth Park has been a haven to California shippers over the years. For example, King Glorious and Music Merci ran one-two in the 1989 Haskell (gr. I); Restless Con won the Haskell the following year; Touch Gold and Free House ran one-three in the 1997 Haskell; Dixie Union and Captain Steve ran one-two in the 2000 Haskell. Classic winners Point Given and War Emblem shipped in from California to win the Haskell in 2001 and ’02, respectively.

As for Lava Man’s ill-fated journeys, he finished up the track in the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream, but then ran poorly in his two subsequent starts in California, so it’s possible he simply had gone off form after running six strong races in a four-month period. Also, he had been wearing a pad on his foot in training and was only 80% for the race.

The following year, he ran badly in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), but, in his previous start, he had been vanned off the track in an ambulance following the Pacific Classic (gr. I), suffering from exhaustion. Perhaps a trip back east was not the best thing for him, especially when he got cooked early by Flower Alley’s rabbit.

With his form severely compromised, he was then sent to Japan for the Japan Cup Dirt (Jap-I) and was never a factor. That race can hardly be held against him, as the majority of trips to Japan have proven to be a disaster for American horses. In addition, he had an abscess pop two days before the race, but he was already there, so it was decided to run him. As it turned out, he tore a two-inch hole in his frog, and nearly wore the frog down to the knob. He ran almost the entire race with blood gushing from his hoof, and when he returned, his legs were covered in blood.

His next trip outside California was last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I), and, again, it was after a hard campaign in grade I competition that had started in January. And, we all know there have been numerous top-class horses, such as Skip Away, who simply did not take to the Churchill Downs surface.

Finally, there was his trip to Dubai this year for the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I). Although his connections felt confident, it is one person’s opinion that Lava Man would have been better served running in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), even had he finished third behind Invasor and Premium Tap. It is extremely difficult for dirt horses who run on rare occasions on the grass, especially over the hard courses in California, to compete with an international field of group and grade I grass horses. And remember, more than one trainer has stated that the turf course at Nad al Sheba that night had been watered extensively to the point where it was listed as “good.”  None of the other American turf horses who raced on the card did very well either.

So, if you look at it closely, you can come up with a reason for all of Lava Man’s defeats outside California. Granted, he may have lost a step and his times have not been dazzling, but at age 6 (and with a few more years of racing left) and with mostly 3-year-olds to contend with this year, isn’t it worth another shot just to give him one more chance to remove the “strictly California horse” stigma off his back? If he goes to Monmouth, perhaps off a freshening this year, and runs poorly again, then you can give up all hope and keep him in California from now on.

There is another reason why it is important for Lava Man to run in the Classic this year. His story, although told many times in many forms, still remains under-appreciated. Many people don’t realize the extent of his rags-to-riches story and how improbable it truly is.

Humble beginnings

June 19, 2003 was a warm, humid day in Stockton, California, with a brisk 20 mile-an-hour-wind. Those that attended the races at the San Joaquin Fair were there just for fun and certainly were not looking for any future superstars. The fourth race on the card, a $12,500 maiden claiming race for 2-year-olds, had no particular meaning, and you can bet no one paid any attention whatsoever to the fourth-place finisher – a 35-1 shot named Lava Man, who was racing for his owner, breeder, and trainer Lonnie Arterburn, along with several partners.

Following three more defeats, at Santa Rosa Fair and Bay Meadows, Lava Man finally broke his maiden by four lengths on the turf at Golden Gate under jockey Francisco Duran. Even then, the son of Slew City Slew had character and charisma, and made people notice him.

“I felt he was a special horse in his own way,” Duran said. “He was an incredible horse to ride, and he had a special demeanor about him. He also had a wonderful attitude toward everything he did. We all thought he was a good horse, but obviously we had no idea how far up the ladder he was going to climb. I don’t know how to explain how he got this good, but he’s evolved into an amazing horse.”

Lava Man followed up his maiden win with a starter allowance victory, but lost his next four starts before winning an allowance race on the grass at Bay Meadows by a nose. Arterburn had removed his blinkers for the race, and Lava Man showed tremendous courage to win after a stretch-long duel. It was that same tenacity and courage under fire that would enable to him to win back-to-back gut-wrenchers in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I).

On July 28, 2004, Lava Man was entered in a $62,500 claiming race on the grass at Del Mar. One person who had his eye on the horse was Steve Kenly, who wanted to claim him, but was talked out of it by his trainer Doug O’Neill.

“On the form and on the Sheets, I just felt $62,500 was too much money,” O’Neill said.

Kenly, who had been looking specifically for 3-year-old Cal-breds, because of the state’s lucrative program, had his eye on several horses and Lava Man was one of them.

“Doug said there were more negatives than positives, and I told him, ‘Well, let’s watch him,’ Kenly recalled. “He was coming from Bay Meadows, and for whatever reason, I decided to wait. I watched the race with interest anyway and took notes.”

Lava Man finished sixth in the race, but had a ton of trouble, getting squeezed and trapped between horses. Kenly remembered that and stored it in the back of his head in case the horse showed up again for a price.

Meanwhile, Arterburn hadn’t realized what kind of a bullet he had dodged. Would he tempt fate again?

“The Claim”

The answer, sadly for him, was yes. On August 13, Lava Man was back at Del Mar, this time for a $50,000 tag.

“I never should have run him back down there,” Arterburn said. “You go down to that claiming pit at Del Mar and you’re asking for trouble. They claim crazy down there, and I never should have taken him there. I really liked the horse. He had a great personality; almost a clown. He was like a big kid, always wanting attention. He was a one of a kind character, and we tried to protect him the best we could.”

Arterburn’s friend, veterinarian Kim Kuhlmann, who was co-owner and is co-breeder of Lava Man, was friends with trainer Mike Puype, so instead of shipping Lava Man back to Northern California, they decided to leave him with Puype at Hollywood Park and let him train down there for a couple of weeks. When a $50,000 claiming race showed up in the book, Puype told Arterburn about it. Arterburn had Puype enter the horse and saddle him in his absence. It was a decision he has regretted every day since.

“He had gotten beat for $62,500 and was 9-1 in that race,” Arterburn said. “The bettors there didn’t give him any respect, and I thought the trainers wouldn’t give him any respect either.”

He was right about the trainers, but didn’t count on an owner.

“I actually was seriously thinking about scratching him right before the race, because I started to feel afraid that we might lose the horse,” Arterburn said. “For some reason, I didn’t, and now I’m sick as a dog that I didn’t go by my gut and scratch him. We paid the price.”

Kenly, meanwhile, had been on the lookout for Lava Man, and was delighted to see him show up for $50,000. This time, there was no stopping him. When he saw him entered, he called O’Neill and told him, “Well, you just saved us $12,500.” As it turned out, Kenly’s was the only claim.

But O’Neill and his brother Dennis still were less than enamored with the horse. “Doug actually was even more negative than he was the first time,” Kenly recalled. “He just didn’t like the horse. His running line was bad, and Doug thought he might be unsound. But he had a horrible run, and it was a typical Del Mar turf race where horses get steadied and never get out. He was trapped in there the entire race.”

“The beauty of Steve is that when he gets locked in on a horse he goes after it,” O’Neill said. “He had seen all the trouble he had gotten into in his previous race. So, we felt as long as the horse looked good in the paddock we were going to claim him. Lonnie had him looking great, and we put in the claim. I definitely feel bad for him, because I’ve lost a few grade I horses myself and it does get to you. This can be a brutal game at times. There are a lot more disappointments and heartaches than there are high-fives.”

It was decided to point him for the Pomona Derby at Fairplex, and Lava Man won the Derby Trial by 6 1/4 lengths in his first start for his new connections. He then finished a well-beaten third in the Pomona Derby and proceeded to lose his next six races. But he did finish second in the California Cup Classic and On Trust Handicap for Cal-breds before finishing a game second to Rock Hard Ten in the grade I Malibu Stakes.

Just when it looked as if his career was about take off, he lost his form that winter, turning in three poor performances in state-bred stakes, including the aforementioned Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream.

Then it was O’Neill’s and Kenly's turn to flirt with destiny. Arterburn, still upset over losing the horse, waited patiently, hoping to see Lava Man back in for a price. He was determined to get the horse back. It took a year, but there he was, on May 14, 2005, entered for a $100,000 claiming price.

Unfortunately for Arterburn, he was in the process of moving to Florida in an attempt to upgrade his stock and was unable to come up with the money. It was that move that precipitated his putting Lava Man in for $50,000. And now it was that same move that prevented him from getting him back.

“I was in the middle of real estate deals trying to get a farm bought,” Arterburn said. “I couldn’t find any partners who were interested in claiming him for that price, and I couldn’t afford to claim him back myself. It was bad timing for me and good timing for them. It was ironic, in a bad way, that that we let him slip through our fingers because at the time we were in the pursuit of getting better horses some day.

“After that, it all went rosy for them. When he started running so good, I said to myself, ‘That’s it, I’ll never see him again. Game over.”

As Lava Man developed into a grade I winner and then a legend, becoming the first horse to sweep the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year, Arterburn became more distressed over his misfortune. Now he’s had to watch Lava Man make more history by emulating Native Diver’s feat of winning three consecutive runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup.

“It’s almost killed me,” he said. “It’s not even the money, because I earn breeders awards every time the horse runs. I would give all the money back if I could do everything over. It just tears me up, but what can I do? You hope for a horse like that some day, and there’s no way I’ll ever get something like that again. I’ve always been a claiming trainer and this has made me hate claiming. All I can do is keep trying, but it’s hard to swallow. That’s why I’ll be glad the day Lava Man retires, because it still hurts.”

Kenly had lucked out getting Lava Man, as all the forces seemed to be working in his favor. So, why in the world did he and O’Neill decide to tempt fate and put a grade I-placed horse in a claiming race, albeit for $100,000?

“Doug is a gambler and a pretty aggressive trainer when it comes to claiming races, and the horse had two bad outs and he thought he could get away with it,” Kenly said. “I was against it and just kind of went along with him. I remember telling him, ‘We can’t replace this horse for $100,000; no chance in hell.’ I stayed in Phoenix and watched the horse win in fast time with blinkers on, and was nervous as hell until I got a hold of Doug. I said, ‘Please tell me we didn’t lose him,’ and he said, ‘That (expletive) Hollendorfer.’ When he said that my stomach just fell out; I turned from a nice tan to white. Then he told me he was kidding. I said I’d get him back if it’s the last thing I do. He really got me with Hollendorfer, because he’s the kind of guy who would claim a horse like this. He’s famous for coming down from Northern California and taking high-priced claimers.”

Looking ahead

So, that pretty much is the story of Lava Man and the contrasting fortunes of two men. Kenly, as well as his father, Wood, and O’Neill, gives thanks every day for the fortunes that smiled down on him. But, he still never takes anything for granted.

“In this game, the minute you start getting cocky and think you know it all, the racing gods will strike you down with a thundering blow,” Kenly said. “It’s been a fairy tale, and we’re living right in the middle of it. You have to ask, ‘Where is this book going to go?’ It’s been like a great novel already and you just hope it doesn’t end. You know it will some day, and when it does, you just have to say, ‘Look what he’s done for us. He’s put us in the spotlight; he can’t do any more.’ If it ended today, sure we’d be upset and depressed. It would be a sad day. But on the flip side, we’re so appreciative to have been involved with a horse like this. No matter what happens, it’s in the books, and you can never take that way. It’s history.”

Last fall, Kenly was looking for an appropriate slogan for Lava Man. He inadvertently came up with a perfect one when he said about owning a horse like this: “We’re having a blast.”

Well, there is more history to be made, and there could be an even bigger blast, one that would be felt 3,000 miles from California, and even farther. That is if they choose to take one more shot at it, perhaps with a different kind of preparation. Sure, it could backfire, but it’s not as if Lava Man’s reputation is going to suffer if it did. He’ll still be the king of California. He’ll still be a racing treasure. He’ll still be a legend. In short, he’ll still be Lava Man. And that’s enough in anyone’s lifetime.

 

 

 

Most Popular Stories