Odds-on choice Lava Man proved once again he's the class of the West Coast by winning his seventh straight race of the year with another convincing turn in Saturday's $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita. Next, he'll get the chance to show he's the best in the nation in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.
Lava Man, under top weight of 126 pounds, sprinted away from his rivals on the final turn. Under steady encouragement from regular rider Corey Nakatani, the 5-year-old California-bred gelding held sway to defeat Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Brother Derek by 2 1/4 lengths. The winning time was 1:48 for the 1 1/8-mile event.
Lava Man pushed his career earnings to $3,804,706 with his 14th win in 34 lifetime starts. The former claiming horse has earned more than $2.7 million alone this summer for owners STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood. The owners supplemented Lava Man to the Breeders' Cup for $150,000 prior to the Goodwood. They said after the race that they have every intention of tackling Bernardini in the BC Classic next month.
Doug O'Neill trains Lava Man, who hasn't been beaten since finishing 11th in the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) at Tokyo Nov. 26. The trainer said he's "excited and proud" to run Lava Man in the Classic.
"We're going to ship to Kentucky at least three weeks out. I don't know if we're going to go to Keenland first or go straight into Churchill. Keenland has the Polytrack, and he's really taken to the new (artificial) track at Hollywood Park. He's had some issues with his feet, so we'll have to wait and see."
Nakatani added, "I watched Bernardini today (in the Jockey Club Gold Cup), and he was very impressive. It's going to be fun leading up to the Breeders' Cup. We're ready for him."
In his last start, Lava Man, a son of Slew City Slew
, became the first to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic (all gr. I) in the same year with a 2 1/2-length win at Del Mar Aug. 20.
"This has just been a remarkable experience with him this year, a once in a lifetime," Nakatani said. "I've ridden a lot of good horses, but he just keeps raising the bar now, and it's fun to be a part of it. His consistency is amazing.
"He had every reason to get beat in the Hollywood Gold Cup when he fell to his head, but he showed the heart and determination to win the race while giving the other horses ten to eleven pounds. He was giving away a lot of weight today, too."
Lava Man spotted his six rivals between eight and 14 pounds Saturday.
He broke second behind Preachinathebar but wrestled the lead away on the inside as they reached the clubhouse turn, edging in front of Preachinatthebar and Brother Derek. The challengers kept the pressure on as Lava Man set solid fractions of :23 1/5, :46 4/5 and 1:10 3/5. But on the turn, Nakatani gave Lava Man his head and urged him on a bit as they took command at the head of the stretch. Nakatani gave Lava Man a couple of cracks with his whip right-handed near the eighth pole as Brother Derek dug in through the lane. Brother Derek fought on but could not cut substantially into the lead under Alex Solis.
"I wanted to come out and be on the lead or sitting second or third and let him be able to use his best asset," Nakatani said.
Brother Derek was second by one length. The 2003 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo closed late for Mike Smith to nip Preachinatthebar and Jon Court by a half-length for third.
Lava Man paid $3.20, $2.20, and $2.10. Brother Derek, in his best effort since capturing the Santa Anita Derby in April, returned $3.40 and $2.40. Giacomo was $2.40 to show.
The 3-year-old Brother Derek lost for the first time in five starts at Santa Anita in his initial try facing older horses.
"I hope he restored the faith of some skeptics today," Solis said. "I certainly never lost any faith in him. I know he's a great horse. He just went off track a little bit. He's back to himself now. He ran an incredible race against one of the best horses in the country. It was a great effort for his first time against older horses."
Smith said Giacomo ran well on a track that favors speed. He said the set-up reminds him of the colt's march to the Kentucky Derby.
"This race reminded me a lot of the (2005) Santa Anita Derby," Smith said. "He got beat by three or four lengths and galloped out good. Then Churchill comes up with that long lane and a cuppy racetrack. They get a little more tired on it than they would here. The most certain thing I can come out of this is that it could be the same scenario as the Santa Anita Derby. His next race was that race. He certainly ran well enough today where he deserves a chance to return to Churchill Downs."