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Science brings 8-year-old Lava Man back to racetrack

The stakes-winning gelding was retired last year as bone deterioration weakened his ankles. His connections say stem cell treatment has rejuvenated the horse, but some observers fear another tragedy.

October 03, 2009|Bill Dwyre

Reaction to news that the venerable Lava Man is back in training and may race again speaks volumes about the current state of the sport.

"I'm getting hate mail all the time," says Doug O'Neill, Lava Man's trainer.

O'Neill says he has tried to respond to everybody, that he and owners Dave Kenly, son Steve and Jason Wood are eager to assure racing fans that they have nothing but the best interests of the horse in mind.

Steve Kenly says, "Nobody is looking after this horse better than we are."

O'Neill says, "I totally feel people's pain. I had the same reaction when this started. I said, no, no. We hung up his racing shoes. We're not going to dust them off."

Lava Man is an 8-year-old gelding. In his prime, he acquired cult status reserved for the likes of John Henry and Cigar, older horses who stuck around long enough to win lots of races and build a large fan base.

Lava Man's story was perhaps the most compelling. He was born in Northern California, named by one of his breeders, a triathlete, for the Lavaman Triathlon in Hawaii, and ran in places such as the Stockton County Fair, where he did poorly.

Eventually, at the urging of the Kenly family and Wood, O'Neill claimed him for $50,000. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Lava Man won three Hollywood Gold Cups -- only Native Diver had done that -- as well as two Santa Anita Handicaps and a Pacific Classic. When Lava Man won the Big 'Cap and the Hollywood Gold Cup in 2006, it was the first time that double had been achieved since Affirmed did it in 1979. Then, when he completed the triple by winning the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Lava Man had established a first.

In 46 starts, Lava Man's in-the-money record was 17-8-5. His winnings were $5,268,706.

It ended when he ran several ordinary races in 2008, the last being the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar on July 20. Examining doctors said there had been some bone deterioration in his ankles. Ten days after the Eddie Read, Lava Man was retired.

But the Kenlys and Wood agreed to foot part of the bill -- a government grant paid the rest -- for research on stem cell replacement in horses, being done by Dr. Doug Herthel at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center near Santa Ynez. Surgeons could harvest Lava Man's bone marrow -- it is taken from his chest -- and use it to treat joints and cartilage in the horse's aching ankles.

O'Neill heard about it and thought it was nice, because if this worked it would improve Lava Man's comfort around the retirement farm. Then he got the word about three months ago that Lava Man was doing some light galloping. The reports were amazing. Herthel told O'Neill that, were Lava Man to return to racing he'd have the strongest bones of any of the horses. Finally, about a month ago, O'Neill went north.

"I had to see this for myself," he says.

And once he did, once he saw a happier horse, one that has always loved to train and now was doing it back near the level of his prime, the trainer was convinced.

"I was a nonbeliever," O'Neill says. "But now, I couldn't be more excited."

Steve Kenly says, "Every workout, we got closer. We put it out there for Lava Man to tell us, and he kept passing tests. Everybody was reluctant at first. Now, after seeing him, everybody is on board."

Lava Man is back training at Hollywood Park. Just 11 days ago, he turned three furlongs in 36 seconds flat, faster than any other horse on the track that day. Friday morning, according to Steve Kenly, Lava Man "worked slower, worked longer, galloped like he did when he was at his best."

Lava Man's comfort zone has returned. He is back with his groom, Noe Garcia, who lost his arm in an auto accident as the Del Mar meeting began in July 2007. He is back with regular exercise rider Tony Romero, even back with his shoe specialist, Jimmy Jiminez.

Still, this story and these explanations have not convinced all racing fans, especially those who cannot shake the pictures of Barbaro, or Eight Belles, or George Washington -- all classic horses who broke down at high-profile moments, stinging the sport and sickening so many of its followers.

It happened again as recently as opening day at Del Mar this year, when the aged Mi Rey broke down, sending jockey Rafael Bejarano to serious injuries and continuing, in pain and fear, directly in front of the grandstand.

The messages, by e-mail and voice mail, are all the same to O'Neill, to Lava Man's connections, to turf writers: Don't let this happen to this great horse. Let him retire in peace. Don't put horse racing in position for yet another black eye.

O'Neill says the earliest Lava Man would race, assuming no training complications, would be mid-November at Hollywood Park.

"He loves it there," O'Neill says.

He also says that any setback, even a small one, will end this grand experiment and send Lava Man back to the farm. He is so concerned about public perception that he says any of his training winnings from Lava Man will be donated to CARMA, a charity that helps pay for horses' care once they are retired.

"The message to the fans is two things," O'Neill says. "First, nobody is doing this for the money. And second, Lava Man is being monitored daily by the top people in the business."

O'Neill says he hopes Lava Man will become a "poster boy" for stem cell research in thoroughbreds.

Doubters worry that the beloved old guy could become a different kind of poster boy.


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