Emotions are sure to run high when Lava Man attempts to defend his title in the $1-million Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar Aug. 19.
Shaping up to be an exciting race with a possible 13-horse field, including the Bruce Headley-trained Arson Squad, the Pacific Classic will be run three days after a poker tournament benefit for Lava Man's groom, Noe Garcia, who recently lost his arm in an automobile accident.
"It has been a rough month with Noe, and then with Merv Griffin passing the other day, but we hope Sunday brings it all together," said Dennis O'Neill, who assists his brother, Doug, with his stable. "It will be a very emotional day with Lava Man running, and Noe is supposed to come out (for the race), so that will even make it more meaningful."
O'Neill said there is a goal of raising at least $100,000 at the poker tournament to assist Garcia's recovery and rehabilitation, as well as helping the groom obtain a prosthetic arm.
In regard to Lava Man running on Polytrack, O'Neill appears to have no reservations.
"He breezed before the first race (Aug. 11) and looked fantastic," he said. "Lava Man is a big, heavy horse, but he just skipped across (the Polytrack). He has been down here the whole meet, and he sure seems like he's going to really, really enjoy it."
O'Neill thought the main reason why so many horses are willing to take on the son of Slew City Slew in the Pacific Classic is due to the fact the race will be run on Polytrack.
"People are thinking (Lava Man) is a speed horse, and those don't do too well on the Polytrack," he said. "It seems like most of the horses that have signed up are come-from-behinders, but I don't think it's much of a hindrance to us because I think we'll be close to the pace."
Despite Lava Man's issues of shipping outside of California, where he is zero for five, O'Neill said there are still discussions about sending the 6-year-old gelding to the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Monmouth Park Oct. 27.
"People say Monmouth is a lot like Santa Anita--it's a harder track," O'Neill said. "(Lava Man) likes a track he can skip across, so he might really like a track like (Monmouth). If he continues to win and do as well as he has been doing physically and mentally, we'll definitely have to consider it."
Lava Man, who is looking for his second straight Pacific Classic victory, has won three straight Hollywood Gold Cups (gr. I) and boasts earnings of more than $5 million. He will likely be the favorite in the Classic at Del Mar.
Bruce Headley, who will send out this year's Strub Stakes (gr. II) victor Arson Squad against Lava Man, is also confident in his gelding's abilities on Polytrack. The son of Brahms was on the sidelines for nearly six months earlier this year due to a popped abscess, though Headley said he hadn't missed many days of training. Arson Squad will enter the Pacific Classic off a sixth-place finish in the July 21 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) at Del Mar.
"(Lava Man) is a great horse, but Father Time draws a finishing line, and (Arson Squad) is a 4-year-old and getting better all the time," Headley said. "He had two brilliant works over this track--he's a hard-trying horse and a competitor. You always have the hope you can knock off the champ. (Lava Man) is a hard one to do, but it's gonna be someday, and I hope it's this weekend for me."