Lava Man, despite six grade I victories on dirt and grass and earnings of over $4.7 million, has had his knockers, because of his inability to win, or even run well, outside of California. But, on Saturday, he will be home and attempting to make history by equaling Native Diver’s record three Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) wins.
Native Diver was even more of a homebody than Lava Man, who has been badly beaten in all five of his forays outside California. “The Diver” made 81 career starts, venturing outside California only once – a sixth-place finish in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington.
Now, with Native Diver’s record staring him in the face, Lava Man will try once again to make people forget his travel woes by adding another chapter to his already amazing California Tales. Last year, the 6-year-old son of Slew City Slew became the first horse ever to win the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year. A victory on Saturday would leave him one race away from duplicating that feat.
But first there is Native Diver’s record to contend with. “I have no memories of Native Diver when I was young,” said Dennis O’Neill, who is assistant to his brother Doug. “But we’re buddies with Richard Shapiro, whose parents (Mr. and Mrs. L.K. Shapiro) owned the horse, and he comes by the barn all the time. I’ve heard the name Tonya Harding mentioned in regard to his attempt to stop us. There’s a lot of pressure, because Native Diver was a legend out here. Doug said he’s nervous about the race because of what an incredible accomplishment it would be. When horses go for the Triple Crown, I believe the racing gods have a say in how it’s played out. So, if he’s supposed to be up there with Native Diver, it’ll play out in our favor. After all, he’s become a bit of a legend out here himself.”
O’Neill, in addressing a national teleconference, said that Lava Man has been training on the Hollywood Park Cushion Track since it was first installed and seems to love it.
“He’s been getting stronger every day and we think he’s going to run big,” Dennis O’Neill said. “His last race (a second in the grade I Charles Whittingham on turf at odds of 4-5) was disappointing at first. But looking at it later, it was a huge sigh of relief that he ran so well in his first race after returning from Dubai. And (the winner) After Market is going to be a super grass horse.”
O’Neill still is at a loss to explain Lava Man’s lack of success outside of California.
“Doug and I talk about it all the time,” he said. “Lava Man is a very sound horse who hardly needs any medication. And his carbon dioxide levels are always low. He needs basically nothing; just put a bridle on him and lead him over. But when we take him out of town it’s a totally different story. I was really surprised he ran the way he did in Dubai. He was training so great, and that race was right in his wheelhouse. I was just amazed how badly he ran. When he travels to Santa Anita he’s fine. But for some reason, when he hops on a plane he’s not the same horse. He obviously wants to stay in California.”
O’Neill said, after the Hollywood Gold Cup, Lava Man will point for the Pacific Classic, after which, they will discuss future plans with owners Steve Kenley and Jason Wood.
But for now, Lava Man will have to get past the Gold Cup, which should draw a field of 11-12. O’Neill said the horse they fear most is the improving Brazilian-bred Molengao, who finished second to Lava Man in the Santa Anita Handicap, beaten three-quarters of a length, before winning the Mervyn Leroy Handicap (gr. II) by 4 1/2 lengths. The son of Royal Academy also captured the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) this year.
Molengao’s trainer Paulo Lobo said the 6-year-old has come back better than ever after being sidelined with a minor ankle injury following the Sunset Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. IIT) last July.
“He had puffed ankles, so we stopped on him and treated them,” Lobo said. “He’s come back great, and I believe the new cushion track has been a big plus for him. In the Santa Anita Handicap, he overcame a very difficult situation. It was very slow pace and he was the only one closing ground. He ran huge that day. His last race was amazing. I brought him in fresh, and since then he’s been doing very well.
Lobo said Molengao, who is nominated to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, likely will be pointed for the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I). “We’ve been thinking of that race since the beginning of the year,” he said.
The probables for the Gold Cup are Lava Man, Corey Nakatani, 124; Molengao, Victor Espinoza, 120; My Creed, Russell Baze, 117; A.P. Arrow, David Flores, 116; A.P. Xcellent, Mike Smith, 115; Wilko, Joe Talamo, 115; Big Booster, Michael Baze, 113, and Mr. Splash, no rider, 112. Saint Stephen (115) and Porfido (112) are considered possible. Porfido recently worked six furlongs in 1:16.2/5 for trainer Bobby Frankel, while Wilko worked six furlongs in 1:14 3/5 Saturday for trainer Craig Dollase.