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Bill Dwyre

Lava Man will chase a ghost in the Gold Cup

June 26, 2007|Bill Dwyre

Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park, Lava Man will have at least half a dozen quality horses to beat for his third straight Hollywood Gold Cup.

Also, one ghost.

The striking black horse from Doug O'Neill's barn will be chasing a striking black horse from history.

When Native Diver made his celebrated run in the 1960s, racing was a main player on the Southern California sports scene. Crowds of 50,000 or more showed up to wager, root and adore. When he won his third straight Hollywood Gold Cup in 1967, he got the Lakers-size headlines of today.

Lava Man is 40 years too late to stir the masses the way Native Diver did. Video games, skateboards and Kobe are the straws now. But when jockey Corey Nakatani climbs aboard Saturday, remaining fans will know that something special may be about to happen in this prestigious $750,000 event.

In a race that has been won over the years by the likes of Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps, Affirmed and Cigar, only Native Diver and Lava Man have won it twice. And only those two have done so in succession. But only Native Diver has made a successful three-peat.

Lava Man has the proper qualifications to race in the footsteps of this deity. He has winnings of $4,739,706 and has not only won two Gold Cups, but also two Santa Anita Handicaps and one Pacific Classic, the jewel of Del Mar's annual summer seaside meeting.

Born in California six years ago, Lava Man made an inauspicious 2-year-old start in a $12,500 claiming race at the Stockton Fairgrounds -- akin to performing poorly in the lowest rungs of the minor leagues. Twelve races into his career, he had three wins.

Nevertheless, Steve Kenly of STD Farms saw something in the horse and started encouraging his trainer, O'Neill, to make a claim. O'Neill got Lava Man for $50,000 on July 28, 2004, after a race in Del Mar.

That now ranks as the best claim in history. Lava Man has achieved all but $98,000 of his winnings after the claim.

Still, O'Neill was neither thrilled nor certain. Lava Man was open to purchase as recently as May 14, 2005, when he ran in a $100,000 claiming stakes. But nobody took him, he won, and since then has done so 11 more times in 18 races.

Racing reveres its Kentucky Derby winners, and celebrates the champions of its Preakness and Belmont. But it lives off the older horses, the gelded warriors, the John Henrys, Kelsos, Foregos and Native Divers who stay around long enough to gather a fan base.

Lava Man is there.

*

It is a Thursday, early in the morning, already bright and sunny at the barns at Hollywood Park. Lava Man, in a padded stall that attests to why he may have been gelded in the first place, calmly awaits his groom and his morning romp.

Noa Garcia hopes to be preparing for his fourth Gold Cup title. He groomed Sky Jack for O'Neill in 2002, and then did the same for Lava Man in '05 and '06. O'Neill and Garcia laugh about Garcia's bad timing. A few years before Sky Jack, the winning groom used to get a pickup truck.

Garcia wraps each ankle of the famous horse with white gauze material. "They can nick themselves with a bad step, and that protects against the little cuts," O'Neill says.

A red shadow roll over his nose contrasting nicely with the white ankle bandages, the great black horse looks almost regal.

As Lava Man is warmed up slowly by a walker, O'Neill turns to longtime exercise rider Tony Romero and says, "OK, one and one today" -- one breezed lap and then one more vigorous gallop.

Romero replies, "Nope, two and one."

O'Neill nods, shrugs and jokes about who is the real trainer of this horse. Then he stops Lava Man long enough to show off the expert shoeing job by Jimmy Jimenez -- glue, not nails -- that he says has made the horse more comfortable.

"Talking about team stuff is a cliche," O'Neill says, "but it is what works here."

From the backstretch observation deck, the track looks as busy as the 405 Freeway. But Lava Man is never hard to spot with that signature red shadow roll and Romero's bright green safety riding vest reflecting the morning sun.

Lava Man breezes near the rail. Other horses, in full workout, pull away from him, but not quickly or easily.

"We seldom put him through a hard, formal workout," O'Neill says. "He just does this, almost every day. Most other horses, going this often at that speed, would just shrivel up."

*

On the other side of the main grandstand, in the center of the paddock, is a bridge, murals on its side, flowers planted beneath, and a large cup on top. It is the memorial to the ghost Lava Man will chase Saturday.

Buried beneath is Native Diver, who died only months after his third Gold Cup win in 1967 and only days after winning the Del Mar Handicap on Labor Day, his intestine twisted so badly there that he could not be saved.

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