Conditions Ideal for Gold Cup Eruption

Conditions Ideal for Gold Cup Eruption
Photo: Benoit
Lava Man and Corey Nakatani easily won the Charles Whittingham Memorial on the grass last month.
(from Hollywood Park report)
Dynamic California-bred Lava Man, on a four-race winning streak, was assigned 124 pounds for Saturday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I). But after everything the 5-year-old gelding has accomplished this year, that probably wasn't enough -- just four rivals are signed on to challenge him.

Trained by Doug O'Neill, Lava Man has been made the 4-5 morning line favorite as he attempts to join legendary Native Diver as the only repeat winner of Hollywood Park's most prestigious race.

Native Diver won three consecutive runnings of the 1 ¼-mile classic beginning in 1965. Owned by Mr. and Mrs. L. K. Shapiro, trained by Buster Millerick, and ridden by Jerry Lambert, he became the first California-bred to earn $1 million.

Lava Man, already a winner of $2,454,706, set a record when he won the 2005 Gold Cup by 8 ¾ lengths while carrying 118 pounds. The victory came just 11 months after STD Racing and Jason Wood claimed him for $50,000. Since then, the versatile son of Slew City Slew has earned $2,356,103 with eight wins in 18 starts.

With regular rider Corey Nakatani aboard, the dark bay has been brilliant while winning each of his four starts in 2006 and more than $1.8 million. He won a pair of $1 million races, including the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), before shifting to turf at Hollywood and capturing the TVG Khaled Stakes in course record time of 1:44.26 for 1 1/8 miles and the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. IT) at the Gold Cup distance.

"He's doing awesome; he's doing really, really well," an enthused O'Neill said. "I think the grass races kind of helped freshen him up. His training has been as good as it has been going into the last few races, and we are expecting a really big effort. Knock on wood, I can't recall him ever being better. Hopefully, we are saying that after Saturday."

Lava Man, who can surpass Budroyale as the richest claiming horse with a Gold Cup victory, also has a chance to become the first horse since Exceller in 1973 to capture the Whittingham (formerly the Hollywood Turf Handicap) and the Gold Cup in the same year. Such notable horses as John Henry (twice), Vigors, and Cougar II failed to do so.

The 67th running of the Gold Cup, slated as the tenth of 11 races on Saturday's program, is scheduled for 4:45 p.m.

Rated by many as the top handicap horse in the nation, Lava Man will be the third starter for O'Neill in the Gold Cup. He is two-for-two, winning with Cal-bred Sky Jack in 2000 and with Lava Man in 2005 -- a record only Tom Smith, who saddled Seabiscuit to win the inaugural running in 1938 and Kayak II to win the second running, can match.

Seek Gold, who struck at odds of 91-1 to win the Stephen Foster Handicap June 17 at Churchill Downs, ships from Kentucky to challenge the California champion.

The 6-year-old chestnut gelding is one of nine horses purchased recently by owner Ted Bowman, who claimed his first horse for a tag of $5,000 in January. Bowman met current trainer Ron Moquett at Oaklawn Park and bought Seek Gold after the pair dined with trainer Nick Zito on the eve of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

Seek Gold, making his first start for the pair, came from far off the pace and caught Perfect Drift to win the Stephen Foster by a nose, providing owner and trainer with their first grade I victory. The win snapped a 13-race losing streak, although Seek Gold had previously earned $437,636 while placing in several graded stakes races. He enters the Gold Cup with five wins in 28 starts and earnings of $887,636. He'll get a seven-pound break at the weights against Lava Man.

"We're running, in my mind, against the best horse in the nation," Moquett said. "We need all the help. It would take a team effort to beat him, I believe."

Super Frolic, who could give trainer Vladimir Cerin his second Gold Cup win, was purchased by Ro Parra's Millennium Farms on the eve of the 2005 Pacific Classic (gr. I). He ran fifth that day, then won the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), earning a trip to the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), where he stumbled at the break but recovered to finish fourth, beaten 2 ¾ lengths.

Cerin, who saddled former claimer Early Pioneer to an upset victory in the 2000 Gold Cup, has treated Super Frolic in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber between races. He bounced back from a ninth-place finish in the Dubai World Cup (UEA-I) in March with a second in the Californian at Hollywood June 17 following a 2 ½-month layoff.

"He is an old warrior," Cerin said. "He's real sound, strong, and happy."

Argentine-bred Magnum, trained by Darrell Vienna for Herrick Racing, has two wins and two seconds in four starts this year. He was beaten less than a length while finishing second to Lava Man in the Santa Anita Handicap. He then ran second to Buzzards Bay in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) before capturing the Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III) in his last start. He enters the Gold Cup with five wins in 17 starts for earnings of $618,414.

Brazilian-bred Ace Blue won the 2005 Mervyn LeRoy (gr. II) but has struggled since then. The 6-year-old horse is seven-for-23 overall, with earnings of $262,979.

$750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I, Race 10, 4:50 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1. Lava Man (CA), 124, Corey S. Nakatani, 4/5
2. Magnum (ARG), 118, Patrick A. Valenzuela, 2/1
3. Seek Gold (KY), 117, Calvin H. Borel, 8/1
4. Ace Blue (BRZ), 113, Victor Espinoza, 20/1
5. Super Frolic (KY), 116, Jon K. Court, 4/1

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