Call him the king of the claimers.
Lava Man, claimed for $50,000 less than two years ago, won the Hollywood Gold Cup for the second straight year Saturday, stumbling at the start only to recover and grab the lead down the stretch before holding off hard-charging longshot Ace Blue in a photo finish at Hollywood Park.
It was a race so close, trainer Doug O’Neill thought Lava Man had lost at the wire, but a couple of minutes later a cheer went up when the order of finish was posted.
One year after winning the Gold Cup by a record 8 3/4 lengths, Lava Man had won by a nose.
“I thought I had the bob,” said Lava Man’s jockey, Corey Nakatani. “But I knew he was coming.”
Victor Espinoza, the rider on Ace Blue, said his horse almost got there after being third at the top of the stretch of the 1 1/4 -mile race.
“One more jump, and I would have got him,” he said.
Afterward, O’Neill teasingly put his hands on the shoulders of two of Lava Man’s owners, Steve Kenly and Jason Wood.
“Guys, the claiming game is not that tough, I’m telling you,” he said, deadpan, and then laughed.
Since Kenly picked out Lava Man two summers ago at Del Mar, the 5-year-old gelding has won $2,806,103, including the $450,000 winner’s share of the $750,000 Gold Cup.
With the victory, Lava Man became only the second repeat winner in the 67-year history of the Gold Cup, joining Native Diver, winner of three in a row in the 1960s.
He also became the first horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap and the Gold Cup in the same year since Affirmed in 1979.
And with a five-race winning streak that includes three Grade I stakes victories, on turf as well as dirt, he also became a leading candidate for horse of the year.
“We were beaten by a horse that has a chance to become a legend,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of Ace Blue.
“Lava Man is a horse that can do anything. He runs off the pace, he runs on turf, he runs on dirt. He had it put to him today, and he was carrying more weight, so you’ve got to say that he did dig down.”
The knock on Lava Man has been that he hadn’t been well-tested, but he had plenty of obstacles to overcome even before the stumble out of the gate that left him third in the early going.
Besides drawing the rail and carrying 124 pounds -- 10 more than Ace Blue carried -- Lava Man, the odds-on favorite, spent the 24 hours before the race in the detention barn, away from his stall.
The requirement was part of a 30-day penalty that mandates horses trained by O’Neill must run out of the detention barn after one of his horses exceeded the permitted level for total carbon dioxide in May.
O’Neill, who is disputing the penalty and lost a bid for a temporary restraining order, sent his regular night watchman to spend the night outside Lava Man’s detention-barn stall.
“He said he was up a few times,” said O’Neill, who downplayed the situation during the week but acknowledged after the race he had been concerned.
After Nakatani told him before the race he didn’t like the dryness of the track and Lava Man stumbled at the start, O’Neill thought it would be hard to win.
Nakatani took his time as Magnum, the second choice with Patrick Valenzuela aboard, led for most of the first mile. Lava Man finally took the lead at the top of the stretch, then had to hold off Ace Blue at the finish to win in 2:01.16.
With the victory, Lava Man’s career earnings of $2,904,706 exceed the career earnings of any former claimer, including Budroyale, a success story of the 1990s, and Stymie, a star of the 1940s who was claimed for $1,500 and earned $918,485.
Granted, it’s all relative. Considering inflation, Stymie’s winnings would be worth about $8 million today.
There’s potentially much more ahead for Lava Man, with the $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August and the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November in his sights.
After the race, O’Neill’s cellphone rang with J. Paul Reddam, the founder of the high-interest loan company CashCall, on the line. O’Neill thanked him for calling, then teased Lava Man’s owners, sitting next to him.
“Looks like Steve and Jason aren’t going to have to call CashCall for a couple of weeks now,” he said.