LAVA MAN A RACING LEGEND THAT STILL LIVES
How time flies when you are having fun. It doesn’t seem like that long ago a California-bred claimer was setting the racing circuit afire and making history. A quick check of the calendar tells us it has been a decade since this grandson of Seattle Slew was dominant.
The year was 2006 and Lava Man was burning up the track across the Golden State. Trainer Doug O’Neill had seemingly figured out how to get the best from this long-striding gelding. Proving to be quite versatile, Lava Man flowed across the finish line first on grass and dirt. Erupting for seven wins in eight starts with four grade 1’s among them, the five-year old runner certainly had a year to remember.
“He showed some run early in his career and we always knew he had a lot of talent,” says O’Neill. “Some horses peak early in their careers and some get better with age. Lava Man was one of those that seemed to figure himself out as he got older. He got more competitive as he got older and just didn’t want to lose.”
Three of those grade 1 wins were especially gratifying as grouped together they made Lava Man into a history making horse. Before 2006, no runner had ever won the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year. All that changed after this son of Slew City Slew caught fire. After taking “the Big Cap” with a huge run in March and the Gold Cup in a golden performance in July, August saw him win at Del Mar in Classic style.
“There is no doubt that was quite an achievement for us,” says O’Neill. “He had the gate speed, the stamina and the strength that shined through. About the 3/8 pole he would just start shredding the competition and power his way to the finish. What a special time it was and to cap it off at a place like Del Mar was just incredible.”
The sweeping of California’s big three races for older horses was indeed a crowning achievement for Lava Man. But a look at his history makes you realize just how special he truly was during his racing days. It was said before that Lava Man did not begin his career on the other side of the proverbial tracks, but rather where there were no tracks. Starting on the California Fair circuit, Lava Man began racing on the bottom rung of the ladder. After showing some promise, he was claimed from a race at Del Mar for $50,000 in 2004 by O’Neill. Finding his best stride under his new conditioner’s care, Lava Man’s career would draw comparisons to Seabiscuit. Much like the Biscuit, Lava Man began his career as a huge underdog (went off at 57 to 1 in first race at Hollywood Park) and finished as one of the recognized best. Flowing into retirement with $5,268,706 in career earnings, Lava Man was a pretty nice payoff for owners Jason Wood and STD Racing Stable.
“Wow, to be mentioned along with a horse like Seabiscuit is such an honor,” says O’Neill. “It is hard to compare anyone to a horse like Seabiscuit, but like him, Lava Man did come from humble beginnings and made it to the top of the sport.”
That incredible year established Lava Man as the top older horse in California, but his reign did not end there. In 2007 he became the third horse (John Henry, Milwaukee Brew) to repeat in the historic Santa Anita Handicap and became only the second horse (Native Diver) to win the Hollywood Gold Cup three times in a row. But in retrospect, Lava Man’s on track achievements may have provided an even bigger payout than monetary figures can measure. Doug O’Neill had taken out his training license in 1989 and won several “big” races leading up to Lava Man. But his California-bred claiming stroke of genius helped catapult a career that now boasts over 2,000 wins and two Kentucky Derby victories (2012, 2016).
“The longer I am in the game the more I realize what a special horse Lava Man is,” says O’Neill. “He did so much for our entire barn. He gave all of us the swag and understanding that we could compete at the highest levels of the sport. I feel really privileged to have worked alongside such a fantastic athlete.”
After being saddled for a race the final time in late December of 2009, Lava Man was retired to work as a stable pony in the O’Neill barn. Game On Dude equaled his Golden State Trifecta in 2013 and Melatonin will run for it as well at this year’s Pacific Classic on August 20. But Lava Man was the first horse to do it and his rise to the top will forever be remembered as a great American sports story.