Two key men in Doug O'Neill's Del Mar barn were saddened by the announcement that seven-time grade I winner Lava Man won't be coming to the barn anymore.
The 7-year-old was retired officially July 30 after tests at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center showed that the gelding's ankles were deteriorating as the result of wear and tear, enough to stop him from running again. Steve Kenly of STD Racing Stable, co-owner with Jason Wood, made the announcement.
"It gives you kind of an empty feeling. He was a cool guy to have around," said Leandro Mora, O'Neill's top assistant and frequent companion of Lava Man at the track.
Mora paid homage to the gelded son of Slew City Slew this way: "We are so proud to say that he is the only horse to sweep the three classics in Southern California (Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic) in the same year (2006). You have a special feeling for a horse like that."
In addition, Mora tipped his hat to the gelding for his three consecutive victories in the Gold Cup, 2005-07, joining Native Diver as the only horses to accomplish that feat.
Exercise rider Tony Romero, who was Lava Man's full-time partner on the racetrack, said, "He was easy to work with. My job was to keep him sound while he trained. We'll miss him a lot."
Then with a big smile, he said, "Now it's Doug's job to find us another one like him."
O'Neill was contacted at his Hollywood Park barn, where he said: "Every time I think of what Lava Man did for all of us, it brings a smile to my face. He has been a champion in every sense of the word. He was so competitive and brought all of us so much pleasure."
While nothing has been settled yet as to where Lava Man might be placed, O'Neill said he believes he'll get about six months on a farm to unwind and then will come back to the barn to be retrained by Romero into becoming a stable pony.
"That would be our top scenario," O'Neill said, "and I think he would like that kind of life, being able to be around young horses. He has the kind of demeanor that would fit that life."
Lava Man finished his career with a record of 46-17-8-5 and earnings of $5,268,706.