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THE BREEDERS' CUP

New York-based Bernardini is favored to win the Classic, but Lava Man has strong credentials

November 04, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, KY. — It's East versus West in the Breeders' Cup today, a rivalry as deep-seated as New York against L.A. or the old Boston Celtics-Lakers competition.

But when West Coast champ Lava Man takes on New York-based Bernardini in a field of 13 in the $5-million Classic at Churchill Downs, there will be a little twist on some of the stereotypes.

"Bernardini, he's more the Hollywood glitter," said Doug O'Neill, trainer of Lava Man, the former $50,000 claimer who has earned more than $3.8 million.

"We're kind of the lunch-pail, hard-hat guy going to the mine to pull a day's wages."

Bernardini is the star 3-year-old, winner of the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths in a brilliant performance that was obscured by the image of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro breaking down, his career over, his survival in question.

Since then, Bernardini, a well-bred son of A.P. Indy, has won three stakes races in New York by runaways, with no challenger within six lengths.

The even-money favorite on the morning line, Bernardini will be gunning for horse-of-the-year honors in what might be his last race. There are hints from Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Darley Stable that the colt will be retired to stud.

Lava Man, a 5-year-old gelding, is seven for seven this year and became the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic in the same year.

But the knock is that those victories were against mostly California horses -- and all on California dirt.

The son of Slew City Slew is receiving little enough regard that he wasn't even made the second choice on the morning line, but instead was the 6-1 third choice behind Bernardini and 5-1 Invasor, an Eastern 4-year-old who hasn't raced in three months.

"The bottom line is, we still have a former claimer who hasn't won outside of California," said O'Neill, who shipped Lava Man to Kentucky three weeks before the race to try to acclimate him to new surroundings. "We still have to prove ourselves."

Lava Man has fared poorly in previous trips out of California. He finished last year by running seventh in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and was 11th in the Japan Cup in Tokyo.

Trainer Bobby Frankel, a bicoastal sort -- Brooklyn-born and California-based -- gave Lava Man a slim chance.

"Bernardini, if he runs his race, he'll win," Frankel said, calling himself a numbers man and citing various horse racing "numbers" or "figs."

"The numbers are much better on Bernardini," he said.

Lava Man's Beyer Speed Figure published by the Daily Racing Form after each of his last three races has been 109. Bernardini's last three races earned Beyer figures of 114, 116 and 117.

But there's a lot more to the 1 1/4 -mile Classic than a Bernardini-Lava Man match race.

A couple of 3-year-olds who had disappointments in the Kentucky Derby, Brother Derek and Lawyer Ron, are back, along with veterans from last year's Classic -- among them Perfect Drift, running in his record fifth.

There are other horses taking a farewell turn, including Giacomo, the longshot winner of the 2005 Derby who is a 30-1 shot in the Classic, and George Washington, the top European turf miler who will take a flier on the dirt in his final race.

One of the main story lines during the eight-race Breeders' Cup card, featuring a record $20 million in total purse money, will be Todd Pletcher, the 39-year-old trainer poised to start a record 17 horses, including Lawyer Ron in the Classic.

Pletcher will handle the scramble much the same way he does his daily juggling act of managing about 200 horses across the country -- by being organized.

Inside Pletcher's modest office in his Churchill Downs barn, the leading trainer in North America, with more than $23 million in purse earnings this year, has five neat clipboards with computer printouts recording feed and temperature, stalls, equipment, medication and shoeing for all 17 horses running today.

He gauges his best chances for a winner to be in the Juvenile, where he'll send Eastern-based 2-year-olds Circular Quay and Scat Daddy against such West Coast prospects as Principle Secret, Stormello and Great Hunter, who is trained by O'Neill, the winner of last year's Juvenile with Stevie Wonderboy.

Pletcher also has favorites in the Filly and Mare Turf, with Wait A While and Honey Ryder.

How many races might he win?

"I hear the over-and-under in Vegas is 2 1/2 ," he said. "Is a dead heat a half?

"I'm prepared for any result. I really feel like if you win a Breeders' Cup race, you've got to call it a success. If I don't win one -- I'll be disappointed if I go 0 for 17. But I'm not going to pack up my bag and go home and say we had a bad year."

Nor should Lava Man, though some aren't willing to concede.

Trainer Vladimir Cerin, who has chased Lava Man with Super Frolic, the surprise fourth-place finisher in last year's Classic, recently endorsed Lava Man while training in Southern California.

"I think they'll respect him after the Breeders' Cup," Cerin said. "He's never run a bad one for seven in a row. He's an exceptional horse. It's like Pac-10 football teams. They get no respect until they crush everybody, then they're respected. On the track, he's won seven in a row, and it will be eight in a row after the next one."

Dan Hendricks, who trains Brother Derek and is based at Santa Anita, has seen this all before.

"It's an East-West thing, and there's a bias on both sides," he said. "It went on with Seabiscuit and War Admiral. They never gave Seabiscuit a chance because he wasn't a regally bred Kentucky horse from the East.

"It's part of horse racing, and it's been going on forever, and it's a lot of fun."

*

robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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