Lava Man Seeks Historical Southern Cal Win

(from Del Mar report)
For Lava Man, it's time to go with the flow. A victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) Sunday at 1 1/4 miles will make Lava Man the first horse to sweep Southern California's "Big Three" grade I handicaps in the same year.

The 5-year-old son of Slew City Slew won the Santa Anita Handicap March 4 and the Hollywood Gold Cup July 8 in his most recent start. Part of that win streak includes the Charles Whittingham Handicap (gr. IT) on grass at Hollywood Park, showing the big bay's versatility.

For his career, the gelding is 12-7-3 in 32 starts for purse earnings of $2,904,706. Nine of those victories have come under the aegis of co-owners STD Stable and Jason Wood and trainer Doug O'Neill. Four of those wins have come in grade I events.

What's lacking from Lava Man's summary is a victory in the Pacific Classic. He finished third in 2005, beaten three-quarters of a length by a fast-closing Borrego after leading nearly all the way. Corey Nakatani, who has ridden him in each of his five victories this year, will attempt to do Sunday what Patrick Valenzuela was unable to do last year. Lava Man is the 8-5 choice in the field of eight squaring off at equal weights of 124 pounds.

The Lava Man saga began on what might be considered an unlikely note, with Steve Kenly of STD calling O'Neill at Del Mar on Aug. 13, 2004. He had an urgent request to claim a horse in that day's first race. The horse: Lava Man.

"He (Kenly) really liked him while handicapping the race, and thought he was well worth the $50,000 tag," O'Neill recalled. "He said as long as the horse wasn't hobbling around the paddock, I should take him. Well, the horse looked fantastic in the paddock, so we took him.

"You know I make so many claims, and you always dream that you might get a grade I winner, but there was no reason at that moment to think we had anything more than a good $50,000 claimer."

It didn't take long to see potential. The horse won the Derby Trial at Fairplex in his first start for the new owners and trainer before finishing third in the Pomona Derby less than two weeks later. He finished out the year with three straight seconds, including the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) to Rock Hard Ten at Santa Anita.

Three out-of-the-money finishes followed as the 2005 season got under way, but those early signs of ability resurfaced with victories in the Californian (gr. II) at Hollywood and his first Hollywood Gold Cup win. The Pacific Classic defeat began a three-race loss streak. But since then he's been a perfect five for five.

So now he stands to be the first horse in the 16-year history of the Pacific Classic to be in line to win the three biggest races on the Southern California circuit in the same year.

The horse's training regimen smacks of the "old school" style, with periods of no recorded works and then most often two just prior to a race.

Of the pattern, trainer O'Neill says, "That's kind of our M.O. He gallops really well every day, and my thinking is if he's galloping well why interrupt that with a fast work? We do tons of galloping, nothing magical.

"He's a horse that can gallop a mile and a half and keep himself fit. At that point, you're relying heavily on your exercise rider and Tony Romero knows the horse so well. As long as his coat looks good, his weight looks good and Tony's happy with him, we're moving forward to the next day."

Throughout his training schedule leading to the Pacific Classic, Lava Man has impressed onlookers with his strong gallops and his professional way of completing his assignments.

"Our goal is to take advantage of his natural speed, put him in a good position, and then let the training that's he's had help him the last three-eighths of a mile," O'Neill said.

Lava Man is a horse with no quirks. "He acts like a 5-year-old gelding, which he is," O'Neill said with a chuckle. "He's very classy acting and very professional. He doesn't need a pony going to the track.

"Obviously, he's a dream to train."

O'Neill is hopeful, as well, that Lava Man can complete the dream on Sunday.