The return from retirement of Lava Man, temporarily scrapped by bad weather in Southern California two weeks ago, is set for Dec. 27 when the rags-to-riches gelding takes on six rivals in the $150,000 San Gabriel Handicap (gr. IIT) on the Santa Anita turf.
The lifetime earner of more than $5.2 million in his career and nearing 9 years of age, Lava Man is to carry co-high weight of 119 pounds in the 1 1/8-mile event, which would be his first start in 17 months. Forced into retirement by chronically bad ankles, Lava Man drew post 4 and will be ridden by Tyler Baze, who also returns to action this weekend after recovering from surgery to mend a broken finger.
Among Lava Man's opponents are the defending San Gabriel winner Proudinsky and French group-winning import Loup Breton, who were each assigned 119 pounds as well.
Racing’s all-time greatest claim, the California-bred Lava Man owes his rehabilitation to state-of-the-art stem cell therapy.
“He’s a happy horse,” trainer Doug O’Neill said from his Hollywood Park headquarters shortly before entering the son of Slew City Slew in the San Gabriel. “He loves to compete, and he shows that grittiness in the mornings. I expect him to show it in the afternoons.”
Though he has trained brilliantly for his return, O’Neill cautions that Lava Man may not be quite ready to reverse a losing streak of six races. “We’ll be happy to run one, two or three,” says the trainer.
Lava Man was originally scheduled to return in the Native Diver Handicap (gr. III) at nine furlongs on Hollywood’s Cushion Track Dec. 12 but rainy weather forced O’Neill to shift gears.
“It was a little different track prior to the rain, and we didn’t want to take a chance,” O’Neill said.
Lava Man’s recovery treatment at the Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic in Los Olivos was multi-faceted. It consisted of surgery to remove fragments in his ankles; five separate stem cell treatments that started about a year ago and ended in September; arthroscopic evaluation of both fetlock joints; chip fracture removal of the left front ankle, and cartilage scoring evaluation. He also was treated with bone marrow injections to help in the revitalization of cartilage.
Taken for $50,000 on Aug. 13, 2004, Lava Man went on to earn $5,170,103 since, the most ever for any horse that was claimed. He has 17 career wins, eight seconds and five thirds in 46 starts. The versatile dark bay has won six of his 18 starts on turf, including the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT) at Hollywood in 2006.
Due to his advanced age and career resume, Lava Man's comeback has been controversial. But his connections — owners Steve, Tracy and Dave Kenly, and Jason Wood — have become ardent proponents of the stem cell technology. They plan charitable donations with purse money Lava Man may win as a result.
Lava Man has not won since capturing a third straight Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) on June 30, 2007. He has raced three times in his career over Santa Anita’s Camino Real Turf Course while winning once. He took the Sunshine Millions Turf at 1 1/8 miles on Jan. 27, 2007 and was off the board in his two other efforts over the surface.
Proudinsky, the German-bred 6-year-old, avenged a second-place finish to Daytona in the 2007 San Gabriel when he posted a three-quarters of a length victory over Ferneley last year. Trained by Humberto Ascanio since the November death of Ascanio’s boss, Bobby Frankel, Proudinsky has won two of three starts over the Santa Anita grass.
Rafael Bejarano, aboard in each of the Proudinsky’s two previous San Gabriels, will be back in the saddle against Lava Man. The bay horse, owned by Johanna Glen-Teven, has earned $1,135,953 from an overall record of 6-4-2 in 21 starts. Proudinsky is coming off a fourth-place finish in Hollywood's Citation Handicap Nov. 27 when he was 2 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Fluke.
Loup Breton, a 5-year-old Irish-bred son of Anabaa, competed against top company in France, England and Hong Kong while posting a 4-3-2 mark in 19 races for earnings of $557,614. He won group II and group III events in France before missing by less than one length in the Prix Ganay (Fr-I) last April at Longchamp.
Placed in the care of Julio Canani by Wildenstein Stable, Loup Breton demonstrated an impressive turn of foot while rallying to win his first start in this country, an allowance event at 1 1/8 miles on turf at Hollywood on Nov. 19. Garrett Gomez has the return riding engagement.
Three-year-old Acclamation, third-place finisher in the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) one month ago for trainer Donald Warren and owners E.W. and Judy Johnston, pursues his first stakes win in the San Gabriel.
La Canada Stables' Sir Dave, eased in the Breeders' Cup Marathon last month, missed by a nose to Spring House in the Del Mar Handicap (gr. IIT) Aug. 30.
Rosewood Stables' Cherokee Artist, winner of the Presque Isle Downs Mile on a synthetic surface in September, switches to the turf for trainer Graham Motion.
Great Siege makes his stakes debut for trainer David Hofmans and Amerman Racing.
The San Gabriel is scheduled as the seventh race on a nine-race program.
$150,000 San Gabriel Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 7, 3:36 p.m. EST), 3 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Acclamation (CA), D R Flores, 113, D Warren
2. Cherokee Artist (KY), J Rose, 116, H G Motion
3. Proudinsky (GER), R Bejarano, 119, H Ascanio
4. Lava Man (CA), T Baze, 119, D F O'Neill
5. Great Siege (IRE), V Espinoza, 113, D E Hofmans
6. Sir Dave (FL), J Rosario, 113, J Carava
7. Loup Breton (IRE), G K Gomez, 119, J C Canani