Streaking Lava Man Rolls Into Hollywood
There’s no question about it: Lava Man is hot.
The former claimer is unbeaten in four starts this year and has won two $1-million races going into today’s $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park.
Already the winner of the Santa Anita Handicap in March, Lava Man could become the first horse since Affirmed in 1979 to win the Big ‘Cap and the Gold Cup in the same year.
But after winning the Gold Cup by a record 8 3/4 lengths last year, the 5-year-old gelding will have to overcome a few obstacles today to join Native Diver, who won the Gold Cup three consecutive years in the 1960s, as the race’s only repeat winner.
Besides drawing the inside post and carrying top weight of 124 pounds in the five-horse field, Lava Man will have to spend the 24 hours before the race in the detention barn on a busy stretch of the backside.
The mandate is part of a 30-day penalty requiring horses trained by Doug O’Neill to run out of the detention barn because one of his horses exceeded the permitted level for total carbon dioxide in May.
O’Neill, who unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order to halt the penalty until he has had a hearing, said he didn’t break any rules with Wisdom Cat, who tested above the permitted level in a blood sample obtained before the horse finished last at 48-1 in a race on May 27.
“Hook me up to a lie detector, I swear to God, no one in this barn or me milkshaked that 50-1 shot who ran last,” O’Neill said, referring to the term for an illegal mixture said to reduce fatigue in horses.
The top trainer at Hollywood Park in the spring-summer meet last year and a contender again this year, O’Neill runs three to five horses a day, wearing a path from his barn to the detention barn.
“It is definitely an inconvenience,” he said. “For the horses themselves, having to leave their natural environment and their own stall to go to a new stall with new smells in a new area is not exactly the greatest thing.”
Still, O’Neill said, his horses have run well despite the penalty, which ends Thursday, and he downplayed its effect on Lava Man’s chances today.
“My style is one of trying to stay optimistic,” he said. “The horse is a very, very classy horse and though we don’t want to run out of there, it’s part of the current rules.
“We’re definitely at a handicap. But I’m certain that he’s good enough that they can put him in anybody’s barn, any type of setting, and he’ll be just fine.”
Lava Man, a California-bred son of Slew City Slew, remains the heavy favorite at 4-5 on the morning line and will break from the inside post with Corey Nakatani aboard.
The 2-1 second choice, Magnum, will be just outside Lava Man and will be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, the jockey who rode Lava Man in the Gold Cup victory last year. The other starters are Super Frolic at 4-1, Seek Gold at 8-1, and Ace Blue at 20-1.
Second to Lava Man by less than a length in the Santa Anita Handicap, Magnum will carry six pounds less in the 1 1/4 -mile race, but O’Neill didn’t complain about the weight assigned to Lava Man.
“He’s done enough to be top weight, that’s for sure,” he said. “If he were to get beat, I don’t think it would have anything to do with the weight or the detention barn.”
Since being claimed for $50,000 at Del Mar two years ago by Steve and Dave Kenly’s STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood, Lava Man has won $2,356,103 with eight wins in 18 starts.
“His training has been as good as it has [ever] been, going into the last few races, and we are expecting a really big effort,” O’Neill said. “Knock on wood, I can’t recall him ever being better.”