Lava Man joins a small club in Big ‘Cap

Times Staff Writer

Barely a teenager, Doug O’Neill was one of the 72,752 who was present when John Henry, with the help of the stewards, became the first two-time winner of the Santa Anita Handicap in 1982.

Accompanied by a friend, and after taking three buses from Santa Monica to get to the Arcadia track, O’Neill watched from the infield while history was made -- thanks to original winner Perrault’s number being taken down -- by an extremely popular gelding.

O’Neill, now 39 and one of the leading trainers in the country, had a much better seat Saturday when Lava Man, whom some consider this generation’s version of John Henry, won a second Big ‘Cap of his own.


Providing O’Neill with his fourth win of the afternoon, the 6-year-old Slew City Slew gelding and 3-5 favorite won for the ninth time in a row in California, adding to his lore and bankroll.

Claimed for $50,000 by current owners Steve, Tracy and Dave Kenly’s STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood in the summer of 2004, Lava Man now has banked nearly $4.7 million.

In a field weakened after the scratch early in the day of second choice and Strub winner Arson Squad because of a foot abscess, Lava Man got the job done once more, but it was far from easy.

In fact, about an eighth of a mile from the finish, his owners and O’Neill thought he might be upset.

However, as he has done in his home state in every start since finishing third in the 2005 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Lava Man prevailed, beating 7-1 shot Molengao and six others, although no one would call it a work of art.

The margin of victory was the same as it was in 2006 -- three-quarters of a length -- but the final time of 2:02.11 was nearly two seconds slower than it was when he beat Magnum 12 months ago.

Still, all that mattered to O’Neill, the Kenlys, Wood and a great majority of the on-track crowd of 43,024 was that Lava Man had succeeded again.

“The pace was slow [24.06, 48.27 and 1:12.65 for six furlongs] and it was run like a turf race,” O’Neill said. “It was a little scary. They were crawling early and I don’t think he is the kind of horse where he can go that slow early and then really accelerate.

“We’re going to celebrate this. It’s unbelievable to be in the same stat line with John Henry and Milwaukee Brew [who won the Big ‘Cap in 2002 and 2003]. It’s just something that I never could have imagined.

“He showed the champion that he is. These are the moments that you live and work hard for.”

Yet to demonstrate he can win outside California, Lava Man could be taking a long trip in a matter of weeks. Since the beginning of the year, his connections have talked about a possible journey to the United Arab Emirates for the $5-million Dubai Duty Free, a 1 1/8 -mile turf race March 31.

After the win Saturday, all seem ready to watch him run on the undercard for the $6-million Dubai World Cup.

“If he comes out of this race well, we would consider it,” Steve Kenly said. “We’ll let the horse tell us.”

Wherever Lava Man surfaces, jockey Corey Nakatani will be certain to follow. The rider, whose victory Saturday was his third in the Santa Anita Handicap since 2000, might be the gelding’s biggest fan.

“He’s just a tremendous animal,” he said. “Doug and his team have him spot on every time he runs. I think he’ll move forward off this race because he did get a little tired at the end. He turned in a gutsy effort. This horse will do whatever you need him to do.”

Molengao, who had won the San Antonio Handicap a month ago, finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Boboman, a 9-1 shot who was making his first start on dirt. McCann’s Mojave, who was looking for his fourth win in a row, was a nose back in fourth.

The effort by the late-running Molengao was solid given how slow the early fractions were.

“There wasn’t much pace, but it’s OK,” trainer Paulo Lobo said. “No excuses. I’m very happy. We lost to a great horse.”