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Times Staff Writer

There are sounder investment strategies than claiming racehorses.

Just try not to notice how much Lava Man has earned, however, as you prudently stash your money in certificates of deposit.

Since being claimed for $50,000 at Del Mar less than two years ago, the dark bay gelding has earned $2,356,103, making Lava Man one of the great claimers in racing history.

Put that same $50,000 in the bank at 5%, and it wouldn't match Lava Man's winnings for more than 77 years -- though, granted, you wouldn't owe a trainer and jockey 10% each.

Yet another chunk of change could await Lava Man on Saturday when the 5-year-old son of Slew City Slew tries to win the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup for the second consecutive time, something no horse has done since Native Diver won three straight in the 1960s.

Then there's the $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August, and, just maybe, the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November.

Unbeaten in four races this year and winner of the Sunshine Millions Classic and the Santa Anita Handicap, Lava Man has won more money in 2006 than any horse in races in North America except Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby champion who is recovering from career-ending injuries in the Preakness.

Lava Man's run has put him in the company of the best horses ever plucked from claiming races, from Stymie in the 1940s to Budroyale, who finished second in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic and set the earnings record for a claimer by winning $2,837,610 after having been claimed in his first race.

It has all made for quite a ride for Lava Man's owners, Steve and Dave Kenly, a family team from Phoenix involved in farming and real estate, and their partner, Jason Wood, who works in the mortgage business in Orange County.

"For little guys like us -- for anybody to get a horse like this -- but it's different for little people, monumental," said Steve Kenly, who keeps about 15 horses in the STD Racing Stable he owns with his father.

"The money has become secondary. Going into a race, you're always thinking of the horse, hoping everything goes well," he said.

"But you take something like the Breeders' Cup Classic, that's like a lottery or something. I hope we have a chance."

Some would argue that claiming horses others are willing to risk losing is like playing the lottery -- only more expensive.

"You've got to be very lucky in this business," said Steve's father, Dave, an All-American pole vaulter at Arizona State in the 1950s who claimed his first horse for $2,000 at a New Mexico track.

"I've had them break down in the race we claimed them. If you're trying to make money, it will make a multimillionaire a millionaire."

Get a horse like Lava Man, though, and it's better than Orange County real estate.

"I would say real estate in general is still a smarter investment," said Wood, who works for a wholesale mortgage bank. "But I would argue it's not as much fun.

"As I say, I'd rather be lucky than good. That's basically what I've been with Lava Man. It's an unbelievable ride."

Steve Kenly gets much of the credit for picking Lava Man. Doug O'Neill, the trainer who has conditioned the horse for Grade I victories on dirt and turf, wasn't sold when Steve pointed him out in a claiming race in the summer of 2004.

"He was in for $62,500, and I talked him off of him," O'Neill said.

"I just thought it was too much money, and he had Northern California form.

"But in that $62,500 race we didn't claim him in, he had some traffic troubles and didn't get a real good trip and I think very much validated to the Kenlys he was worth the money, and I bought into the fact that, worst-case scenario, he was worth $50,000.

"Then he came back for $50,000, and Steve said, 'Unless he doesn't look good in the paddock, go.' "

Now Steve doesn't hesitate to tease O'Neill.

"When we look at claiming a horse and he says, 'I don't like him,' I say, 'Aw, you didn't like Lava Man either,' " Steve said.

The Kenlys and Wood could have lost Lava Man themselves last year when he ran in a $100,000 optional claiming race at Hollywood Park.

"He had shown us a lot, but, unfortunately, he had fallen off his form and it was one of those things where we thought we had to take that risk to get him a win to hopefully build his confidence," Wood said.

"Needless to say, when he won and won easy, I was on the phone immediately, going, 'Did we lose him?' Fortunately nobody claimed him."

It was hardly the first time other trainers and owners missed a chance to pick up a horse with a big future in a claiming race.

John Henry ran five times for claiming prices but was not claimed. Nor was Seabiscuit, who lost the first 17 races of his career.

And Charismatic, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness after winning only one of his first 13 starts, could have been claimed for as little as $62,500.

The Kenlys and Wood almost parted ways with Lava Man one other time, after he'd won the Gold Cup and before he'd lost his last three races last year before turning around again this year.

"We almost sold after the Gold Cup," Kenly said, adding that the group turned down an offer of $1.5 million.

"Funny, the horse hasn't netted a million and a half since then, with all the deductions, and you still have to pay the trainer. But you wouldn't have traded what's happened to us for the money anyway. I'm glad it didn't work out.

"Money can't buy the experience of the horse."

*

Lava Man was installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Hollywood Gold Cup after drawing only four challengers for Saturday's $750,000 race at Hollywood Park.

Lava Man, to be ridden by Corey Nakatani and carrying high weight of 124 pounds, drew the inside post for the 1 1/4 -mile race.

"He seems to run his best races outside," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "But I think with the short field, post positions aren't really as important."

Magnum, ridden by Patrick Valenzuela and second to Lava Man by less than a length in the Santa Anita Handicap, is the second choice at 2-1 and will start next to Lava Man in Post 2. Super Frolic, the 4-1 third choice, drew the outside post.

The other starters are 8-1 Seek Gold, who broke a 13-race losing streak in winning the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, and 20-1 shot Ace Blue.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Claim to fame

Top-earning claimed horses (earnings after claimed):

*--* Horse Claim price Earnings Budroyale* $32,000 $2,837,610 Lava Man $50,000 $2,356,103 Ladies Din $32,000 $1,956,854 Native Desert $32,000 $1,815,827 King's Swan $80,000 $1,712,495

*--*

*Budroyale, claimed three times in his career, earned $2,556,650 after final claim, for $50,000.

Source: Hollywood Park

*

HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP

* When: Saturday.

* Where: Hollywood Park.

* Post: Race 10, 4:50 p.m.

* TV: 4 p.m., ESPN.

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