California-bred Lava Man, ridden with extreme confidence by Corey Nakatani, shook loose of favored High Limit on the far turn and defeated upset-minded Magnum to win the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in a spectacular effort in front of nearly 50,000 fans Saturday.
The 5-year-old Slew City Slew
gelding, trained by Doug O'Neill for Steve, Tracy, and David Kenly's STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood, won by three quarters of a length over the Argentine-bred Magnum, who was making his American stakes debut in the Big 'Cap. It was 7 1/2 lengths back to Wilko, who came on for third with the 3-2 choice High Limit finishing fourth.
"He's joined an incredible list: Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry," O'Neill noted. "I can't even imagine it, but we're in the Big 'Cap books and they can't take that away from us. It's a great feeling."
O'Neill said he talked to Nakatani beforehand about Keeping Lava Man on the outside.
"We were just worried at a mile and a quarter, sometimes you want to suck down on the rail and save ground, and we didn't think it would work for Lava Man," he said. "But Corey kept assuring us, 'Believe me, when the money's down, they ain't no better rider than me.' He was reeking of confidence and it showed out there the way he rode him."
"Turning for home, I shook the reins at him and he just took off," Nakatani said. "I really wasn't worried about anybody else, it was just a matter of how much I was going to win by."
Saturday's on-track attendance of 49,089 was the largest at Santa Anita – excepting the Breeders' Cup – since 1990, when 50,023 saw Ruhlmann win the Santa Anita Handicap.
The total mutuel handle of $24,238,230 was the fourth largest in the history of the Big 'Cap. The largest ever was $25,215,059 in 2002.
Lava Man, a former $50,000 claiming horse, opened up by a couple of lengths in the stretch and only Magnum was in a position to challenge him after moving into contention along the inside. But there was no catching Lava Man, who completed the 1 1/4-mile event in 2:00 2/5.
Lava Man is now a two-time grade I winner after romping to victory by almost nine lengths in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (gr. I) last year. Things went poorly for Lava Man after that. The dark bay lost to Borrego after opening up a big lead in the stretch of the Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar, eventually finishing third. Then came disastrous efforts in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I), where he suffered a foot injury to end the year.
Returning to action, Lava Man won the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita Jan. 28. His two victories this year have earned his connections $1.15 million.
Overall, Lava Man has won nine of 29 starts and earned $2,184,706.
The pace was decent considering the distance, as the front runner With Distinction and High Limit dueled through fractions of :23 3/5, :47 1/5 and 1:11 1/5. Nakatani guided Lava Man to the outside of the pacesetters where he raced easily, finally pulling even with the other two. With Distinction was the first to give way and, as they circled on the turn, Lava Man began to pull away from High Limit, who was coming off back-to-back grade II victories for trainer Bobby Frankel. They completed the mile in 1:35 3/5.
"I just think Lava Man ran a very big race today," said Patrick Valenzuela, who rode the favorite. "We just got outrun. We had a pretty moderate pace going. I tried to hold my advantage the whole way. I tried to edge away from Lava Man at the three-eighths pole, and I couldn't do it."
By the time they hit the head of the stretch, Lava Man was in command, although Magnum was making a move for Jon Court. Magnum gradually cut into the lead but could not get to even terms with the winner.
"I would have rather been about three out, but that's where Lava Man was," Court said. "In order for me to jerk out four off the fence, I just thought it wouldn't have been productive. I opted to come down that fence, and it's just not as tight as it three or four out. I think if I would have been out on that part of the track, I could have gotten the winner, but then that's more ground."
It was Nakatani's second Santa Anita Handicap win. The other came in 2000 on General Challenge.
"Winning two Big 'Caps is special and this is very special to me. I set my goals very high ... (coming into this meet) I felt it was time to go about my business and win races ... I've had injuries, but in this business you can't tell people you're hurt. I set a lot of goals for myself. Laffit (Pincay) is my idol and I ride similar to the way he rode."
As the 3-1 second choice in the field of nine, Lava Man paid $8.80, $5.40, and $4.60, topping a $117.40 exacta with Magnum. Wilko, ridden by Garrett Gomez, rallied mildly for third and was $5.60 to show.
Giacomo, the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner who went off as the 7-2 third choice, raced at the back of the pack and was never involved, finishing behind High Limit in fifth.
"He just didn't fire, didn't lay it down," jockey Mike Smith said. "I'm at a loss for words to tell what happened.
"I realize people are going to say this is a one-race horse, and they can say what they want to say," Smith added. "But I know that he has a lot of ability and that today just wasn't his race."
Texcess, Spellbinder, the Brazilian-bred Marenostrum, and With Distinction trailed.