Trainer Doug O'Neill keeps throwing bigger challenges at the multi-dimensional Lava Man, but nothing seems to faze the 5-year-old California-bred gelding. Winner of both the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in the last 11 months, Lava Man led gate to wire to register his first grade I win on the turf in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park.
With regular rider Corey Nakatani in the irons, the 9-10 choice Lava Man skipped to the early lead in the 1 1/4-mile test. After setting an easy pace, the son of Slew City Slew
turned back the determined challenge of King's Drama to post a two-length victory while clocking a sharp time of 2:00 1/5. Lava Man has won all four of his starts in 2006 – including the Sunshine Millions Classic and the Big 'Cap on dirt and the Khaled Stakes on grass when he set a Hollywood course record of 1:44.26 for 1 1/8 miles – while earning more than $1.8 million for owners STD Racing and Jason Wood. They claimed the dark bay for $50,000 less than two years ago.
"He reminds me of a horse like John Henry," Nakatani said. "He's won on turf and dirt, he can do it all. John Henry was a horse they got for a little money, and he turned out to be one of the best horses we've seen."
Another 1 1/4 lengths back was Red Fort, who came running late to get third by a nose over defending Whittingham champion Sweet Return.
The race set up beautifully for Lava Man, who got away quickly with Sweet Return tracking in second, setting dawdling fractions of :24 4/5, :49 4/5, 1:14 3/5 and 1:37 1/5. King's Drama, never far back while pulling early under Patrick Valenzuela, ranged up on the outside of Sweet Return to move into second on the far turn and challenged Lava Man briefly in upper stretch. But Lava Man kicked away through the lane and King's Drama settled for second.
"Well I think if somebody had run with him, they would have got beat," Nakatani said of getting the easy lead. "I thought he was going to be double tough either way. I have so much confidence in him.
"When King's Drama came to me I was just breezing along there, and when he got to me I wanted to kick away from him ... make him extend his legs and see what he was made of at that point. What more can you say about him? He's amazing."
O'Neill said the easy pace made things difficult for the other runners in the field. Lava Man, he said, is still better on the main track, he added.
"Obviously, we've got a top quality turf horse, but I still think his best races and his style is more geared to speed and stamina that kicks butt on dirt," the trainer said.
The trick will be to keep Lava Man fresh throughout the year so he'll be ready for the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, O'Neill said.
"I think he is better than ever," he said, noting that Lava Man tired late last season. "This time around we have really been able to keep him fresh-legged and he's been bouncing out of these previous races very well, so we're hoping he continues to do that. He is so honest he should be able to maintain this form throughout the year."
Trainer Bobby Frankel, who won the Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) at Belmont Park earlier in the day with Cacique, was bidding for his second grade I win turf victory of the day with the Irish-bred King's Drama.
"It's unfortunate that they let Lava Man get away with 1:14. That's why I had to make the early move on him, that's the only way I was going to beat him," Valenzuela lamented. "But my horse ran a great race."
Red Fort, a second Irish-bred, also made a wide bid on the final turn and came on willingly under David Flores but ran out of room.
Brecon Beacon, also trained by O'Neill, pulled up on the backstretch while stalking the pace off the rail under Tyler Baze and was vanned off.
Lava Man became the first horse since the Whittingham-trained Exceller in 1978 to win both the Whittingham (then the Hollywood Turf Invitational) and Hollywood Gold Cup. O'Neill expects Lava Man to defend his Gold Cup crown July 8.
"That was the original goal after the Sunshine Millions, to try and repeat and everything is coming together good so far," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said Brecon Beacon was "walking fine" after the race and may have taken an awkward step.
With Saturday's $180,000 winning share, Lava Man has earned $2,454,706 while winning 11 of 31 starts.
The winner paid $3.80, $2.60 and $2.40. King's Drama returned $3.40 and $2.60. Red Fort was $2.80 to show.
Sweet Return is winless in five starts since capturing last summer's Whittingham and Eddie Read (gr. IT) handicaps in back-to-back style. After him came Artiste Royal, Molengao, T.H. Approval and Runaway Dancer.