Two years after Lava Man was claimed at Del Mar for 50 grand, he returned and pulled off his grandest feat yet, winning the $1-million Pacific Classic with a flourish Sunday to become the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic in the same year.
“He’s writing history, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” said jockey Corey Nakatani, who kept Lava Man close to the lead the whole way, then pulled away impressively on the far turn and finished 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Good Reward. Super Frolic was third in an eight-horse field that included 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, who finished fifth.
In the 15 years since the Pacific Classic was introduced at Del Mar in 1991, the only horse to win the three signature Southern California races for older horses was Best Pal, but he did it in three separate years, winning the Pacific Classic in 1991, the Big ‘Cap in 1992 and the Gold Cup in 1993.
Lava Man’s victory was his sixth in a row, and raised the 5-year-old gelding’s lifetime earnings to $3,504,706, third in history among California-breds behind Tiznow and Best Pal.
“I think he’s setting the bar,” Nakatani said. “He’s doing things John Henry did, winning Grade I stakes on grass and Grade I stakes on dirt. Not too many horses have done that.”
Not too many jockeys have done what Nakatani did, riding to a prestigious victory little more than a week after he spent five days in the hospital because of food poisoning that caused his fever to spike to 104, his blood pressure and potassium levels to drop and his weight to fall to a mere 106 pounds.
“I’m still a little weak,” said Nakatani, who was released from the hospital Aug. 12 and returned to ride his first race two days later. “Being in intensive care a week ago, you’re not going to be at your strongest.
“I thought I was peeking at the Pearly Gates. I thought I was going to the light.”
His wife Lisa, a registered nurse at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, where Nakatani was hospitalized, described his ordeal.
“Campylobacter jejuni,” she said. “A virulent bacteria. It caused a little bit of sepsis. He was extremely, extremely ill.”
Lava Man’s emphatic victory at the 1 1/4 -mile distance Sunday might quiet some doubters who noted his Gold Cup victory was by only a nose or questioned the quality of his California competition.
Robbie Medina, the assistant to trainer Shug McGaughey who handled New York shipper Good Reward, was impressed after finishing second.
“He got beat by the horse of the year,” he said.
Bob Baffert, trainer of Preachinatthebar, who finished last after sharing the lead with Lava Man for the first mile, said his horse couldn’t keep up.
“That horse said, ‘Goodbye, it was nice knowing you,’ ” Baffert said.
Even so, trainer Doug O’Neill and Steve Kenly -- who owns Lava Man with his father, Dave, and partner Jason Wood -- know probably only a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in Louisville, Ky., in November can earn Lava Man horse-of-the-year honors against such contenders as Bernardini and Invasor.
Kenly, credited with picking out the horse who has become the highest earning former claimer in history, doesn’t want the ride that began two years ago to end.
“I think if he was just competitive in Cal-bred races we’d have been tickled pink,” he said.
“It’s more than the money. You just want to see him keep going.”
Siren Lure, winner of 12 of 20 lifetime starts, won the $300,000 Pat O’Brien Breeders’ Cup Handicap by overtaking Pure As Gold down the stretch to win the seven-furlong Grade II race by 2 1/4 lengths.
Declan’s Moon, the 2004 Eclipse Award winner as top 2-year-old who has been on the comeback trail this summer after a long injury layoff, finished last after being eased in the final furlong.
“He was acting up going to the gate,” jockey Victor Espinoza said. “Then he didn’t want to go in. When the race started, he just wasn’t there. He didn’t want to run today, all the way around. On the turn, I just stopped trying with him. Today was not his day.”
The horse fatality toll at Del Mar increased to 14 in the first 29 days of the meet Sunday when Yessiremychickadee suffered a right front leg injury on the backstretch of the turf course in the first race and was euthanized on the track.
The 3-year-old filly owned by Jerry Jamgotchian and trained by Tim Yakteen was the ninth horse to be euthanized as a result of injuries during a race, the third on the turf. Five other horses have been put down after injuries during training hours.
Geoffrey Johnson, the father of Perfect Drift trainer Murray Johnson, was recovering at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas after a heart episode at the Del Mar racetrack and is scheduled to have a defibrillator device inserted in his chest Tuesday.... Jockey David Flores was suspended Sunday for three days for causing interference in the stretch aboard Take The Ribbon in Saturday’s Del Mar Oaks.