Ridden by Corey Nakatani, the California-bred Lava Man, sent off at odds of 3-5, always looked like a winner in the $1 million Big 'Cap, surging past the pacesetters Spring At Last and Ball Four to take the lead into the stretch and finishing gamely to hold the late-running Molengao safe by three-quarters of a length in a time of 2:02 for the 1 1/4-mile event.
The crowd of 43,024 -- largest on Big 'Cap day since 1992 -- cheered heartily as Lava Man made his way to a jammed winner's circle, where dozens of family members and friends of the owners were lined up five rows deep.
The victory was the fourth for trainer Doug O'Neill on the Santa Anita card. Lava Man, a dark bay son of Slew City Slew, joins John Henry (1981-82) and Milwaukee Brew (2002-03) as two-time winners of the Santa Anita.
"These are the moments we all live and work for," O'Neill said. "He's truly a champion."
Lava Man was close to the leaders throughout while racing three wide most of the way as Ball Four, with some pressure from Spring At Last, set slow fractions of :24, :48 1/5 and 1:12 3/5. Lava Man was ready to pounce as the field approached the quarter pole, and although he gave up much ground on the final turn, he opened up an insurmountable advantage late and proved best once again while carrying top weight of 124 pounds. He spotted each of his seven rivals eight to 10 pounds.
"He did get a little tired at the end and the weight didn't do him any good," Nakatani said. "This horse will just do whatever you need him to do."
After winning all seven of his starts in California last year, earning $2.77 million and becoming the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Del Mar Pacific Classic (all gr. I), Lava Man is on his way to quite an encore in 2007. He opened the year with a two-length win in the 1 1/8-mile Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita Jan. 27. He earned $600,000 for his Big 'Cap win Saturday and has now banked $4,679,706 in his career while winning 16 of 37 races lifetime. Almost all of that has come since Lava Man was claimed for $50,000 by owners S T D Racing Stable and Jason Wood in 2004.
"He’s run his last nine or 10 races the same way: he makes his move and kicks clear," O'Neill said. "It was a little scary. They were crawling early and I don’t think he’s that kind of horse where he can go that slow early and then really accelerate.”
In 2003, Lava Man began his career in a lowly $12,500 claiming race at Stockton, Calif., where he finished fourth at 35-1 odds. A year later, he was taken by partners Steve and David Kenly of Phoenix and Jason Wood of Rancho Santa Margarita.
"It's an incredible feeling to be involved with this horse," Steve Kenly said.
The only knock on 6-year-old Lava Man is his 0-for-4 road record. In November, he lost away from home again in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.
His owners are considering sending Lava Man to this month's $6 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), the world's richest race.
"Is it the money? Probably a little bit," Wood said. "But I'd say it's more to prove a point."
The taxing Dubai trip is notorious for its toll on U.S. horses, who sometimes need months to recover. That kind of trip could potentially sideline Lava Man for much of the summer.
Noting Lava Man's huge Southern California popularity, O'Neill joked, "We're looking for a Middle Eastern following."
The victory capped a big day for O'Neill, whose 3-year-old colt Great Hunter stayed on course for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) by winning the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II).
"You feel numb," he said.
The Brazilian-bred Molengao, coming off a head victory over Ball Four in the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II), turned in a strong performance for jockey Victor Espinoza, forced to close in the stretch from sixth against slow fractions.
"I was catching up with Lava Man," Espinoza noted. "I was getting to him. At the half-mile pole, I thought there was way too much to do. But I was coming pretty good at the eighth pole. I just wish the wire was a little bit further. He’s getting very good right now, really improving. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think the next time Lava Man will beat me.”
Boboman, a grade I winner on the turf making his first start on the dirt, closed willingly to gain third, 1 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up with Alex Solis aboard.
“For the first time to run on dirt, he was very impressive," Solis said.
Lava Man paid $3.20, $2.60 and $2.10. Molengao returned $4.40 and $3.20. Boboman was $4.20 to show.
Sunshine Millions Classic winner McCann's Mojave missed third by a nose while finishing in front of Spring At Last and Ball Four, each a head behind the fourth-place finisher. El Roblar and Awesome Gem trailed. Arson Squad was scratched Saturday morning by trainer Bruce Headley, reportedly with a foot abscess.