Three-time Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Lava Man, recently reunited with his favorite groom, Noe Garcia, seems back to being his old self, trainer Doug O'Neill says.
Lava Man is expected to lead the charge for O’Neill’s stable during the $1.3 million Cal National Gold Rush program April 27 at Hollywood Park.
Lava Man, who equaled the great Cal-bred Native Diver with his third consecutive victory in the Gold Cup in 2007, is to run on turf in the $150,000 TVG Khaled Stakes when he returns from a layoff of close to six months, O'Neill said April 18. The 7-year-old gelding won the Khaled two years ago in course record time of 1:44.26 for 1 1/8 miles.
Lava Man was turned out following a sixth-place finish in the Cal Cup Classic on Nov. 3.
“His coat is as good as ever and he is carrying good weight and moving real fluidly,” O’Neill said. “Just the energy level ... we have a night watchman who has to tie him up a few times during the night because he gets real playful. We’re walking him more. He’s showing a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy, and those were all things that were kind of lacking his last few starts.”
O'Neill thinks Lava Man's improved attitude is partially due to the return of Garcia. Lava Man was without Garcia following the 2007 Gold Cup when the groom had his left arm severed in a car accident near Del Mar. Garcia is now back to the role he is so familiar with — rubbing Gold Cup winners. Besides Lava Man, he was groom of 2002 Gold Cup champion Sky Jack.
“We’ve got Noe back rubbing on him every day, which is huge,” O’Neill said. “It really feels like we have the Lava Man we had going into the Pacific Classic. Now with the layoff and everything, hopefully we will see the performances we saw before the Pacific Classic.”
O’Neill said he will keep Lava Man on Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track leading to the Khaled.
“He loves it,” O’Neill said of Hollywood Park’s synthetic surface. “We just want to keep him building and building.”
Owned by STD Racing and Jason Wood, Lava Man is the third-leading California-bred earner of all-time behind Tiznow ($6,427,830) and Best Pal ($5,668,245) with a bankroll of $5,214,706. He has won 17 of 43 starts, including 14 of 30 since being claimed by the outfit in August of 2004 at Del Mar. Corey Nakatani, who has ridden the gelded son of Slew City Slew in his last 16 starts, is expected to be aboard in the Khaled.
The Cal National Gold Rush, in its ninth year, will conclude the first week of racing at the 60-day Hollywood Park Spring/Summer Meet.