(Edited Hollywood Park release)
California legend Lava Man will seek to maintain his status as the West Coast's dominant older runner in the $300,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (gr. I) at Hollywood Park on Saturday.
The Whittingham, a grade I race at 1 1/4 miles on turf, marks the first start for Lava Man since a last-place finish in a $5-million race in Dubai on March 31. Lava Man, with career earnings of $4,679,706, drew the outside post eight with regular rider Corey Nakatani under high weight of 124 pounds.
Lava Man seeks to join John Henry as the only horse to win the Whittingham, called the Hollywood Turf Invitational before being renamed for the Hall of Fame trainer in 1999, more than once. John Henry won it three times in 1980, '81 and '84.
A 6-year-old gelding by Slew City Slew, Lava Man is the defending champion of the Whittingham and also won the last two runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap on dirt and is 16 of 38 overall. In the Whittingham, he concedes six to 11 pounds to his foes and must shake off the cobwebs of the lengthy Dubai trip, an excursion that has been known to take a toll on runners.
Trainer Doug O'Neill, however, said Lava Man acts like a horse ready to fire a good shot.
"There are a lot of questions," O'Neill said. "Knock on wood, he's doing great and we're looking for the Lava Man, pre-Dubai."
Lava Man also drew post eight last year, in a field of nine, and led all the way under Nakatani under co-highweight of 122. He was able to gallop on a leisurely pace -- six furlongs in 1:14.60 -- a scenario unlikely to be repeated with the quick Lang Field entered off a sharp front-running allowance score last month. After Market, recent winner of the grade III Inglewood Handicap, and Obrigado, also back from a disappointing effort in Dubai after winning the grade II San Luis Obispo Handicap, are other contenders.
The Whittingham is the highlight of an 11-race program featuring four local stakes plus simulcast wagering of the Belomont Stakes from Elmont, N.Y.
The field for the Charles Whittingham, in post position order:
1--After Narket, Alex Solis, 118
2--Porfido, Victor Espinoza, 114
3--Fitz Flag, G.F. Almeida, 113
4--Obrigado, Jose Valdivia Jr., 118
5--Lang Field, Jon Court, 115
6--Red Fort, David Flores, 117
7--Valiant Effort, Isaias Enriquez, 110
8--Lava Man, Nakatani, 124