Lava Man at NexStar Farm in 2008.
|Sire||Slew City Slew|
|Dam||L'il Ms. Leonard|
|Breeder||Lonnie Arterburn, Eve Kuhlmann, Kim Kuhlmann|
|Owner||STD Racing Stable/Jason Wood|
|Californian Stakes (2005)
Hollywood Gold Cup (2005, 2006, 2007)
Sunshine Millions Classic (2006)
Santa Anita Handicap (2006, 2007)
Khaled Stakes (2006)
Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (2006)
Pacific Classic Stakes (2006)
Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (2006)
Sunshine Millions Turf (2007)
|California Bred Champion Older Horse
California Horse of the Year (2005, 2006)
California Bred Champion Turf Horse (2006)
California Bred Champion Older Horse (2007)
|Last updated on August 19, 2007|
Lava Man (foaled on March 20, 2001) is a dark bay thoroughbred gelding by Slew City Slew (Seattle Slew) out of L'il Ms. Leonard (Nostalgia's Star). Born at Poplar Meadows Ranch near Sanger, California, he was trained by Doug O'Neill, who bought him as a claimer for the STD Racing Stable (the Kenly family) and their partner, Jason Wood. He was bred by Lonnie Arterburn, Eve Kuhlmann, and Kim Kuhlmann in California. A jockey who regularly rode Lava Man, Corey Nakatani, has said of him, "This horse has gears, so many gears. What a horse. He's just about unbelievable."
Lava Man first raced as a 2-year-old in a $12,500 maiden claiming race at the San Joaquin County Fair in June 2003, finishing fourth and earning a paltry Beyer Speed Figure of 27. The Fair Circuit is the lowest level of thoroughbred competition in California thoroughbred racing. His then breeder/trainer, former jockey Lonnie Arterburn (who had claimed Lava Man's dam, L'il Ms. Leonard), said he was a big, long-striding horse that never got tired. "But he was so laid back he could be a pony. He didn't show anything in the mornings. I took him out to Stockton, California to get him a race, make him eligible for starter allowances and not get him claimed away." In the words of Daily Racing Form columnist Dick Jerardi, "Lava Man did not start his career on the other side of the tracks. He started his career in a place [Stockton] where there are no tracks." He lost his next two races. Then Arterburn tried him on the grass, where the horse won or placed in allowance races at Golden Gate Fields. Arterburn then entered him in a $62,500 claiming race at Del Mar Racetrack because, as he said, "We had no other place to run him so we took him south. It was the usual Northern California problem." He came in sixth, so in his next race, Arterburn dropped him down a notch. In that race, Lava Man was claimed by Doug O'Neill, who was looking for a useful California-bred. Because California-breds winning open races in the state generate breeders' rewards worth approximately 15 percent of the purse, Arterburn continued to receive a share of some of Lava Man's earnings.
2004 and 2005
In August 2004, O'Neill claimed Lava Man for $50,000 on behalf of STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood. At the age of three, Lava Man won the Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex and came in second behind Rock Hard Ten in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes.
In 2005, Lava Man lost his first three starts. O'Neill decided to make an equipment change and fitted the horse with blinkers. He responded by winning a $100,000 optional claiming race in May. Then he took the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in June for his first graded stakes victory. In his next race, the $750,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in July 2005, Lava Man won by a stakes-record margin of over 8 lengths and earned his career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 120 while carrying the highweight. In August, he was third in the Pacific Classic Stakes, coming out of the race so exhausted he had to be vanned off. "He gave us such a scare," said O'Neill. "We thought he broke down. You wanted to hug the horse even more. He gave everything he had. People don't do that and horses don't do that."
Lava Man was sent east for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he finished seventh. In late November, he went to Japan for the Japan Cup Dirt where he finished eleventh, running without Lasix for the first time, while an abscess in his left front foot was given as the trainer's excuse.
In Lava Man's first 2006 race, the $1,000,000 Sunshine Millions Classic restricted to California- and Florida-bred horses, he won with a Beyer Speed Figure of 99. Critics doubted that, once matched against all comers, he could be competitive. In his next race, the $1,000,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, Lava Man faced favorite High Limit, 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Champion Wilko. He scored a 3/4 length victory over Magnum, who was getting 7 pounds. Lava Man earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113. Because of his turf pedigree, O'Neill next entered him in the restricted Khaled Stakes at Hollywood Park Racetrack. Lava Man won easily and set a new track record for 1⅛ miles while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106. Keeping him on the turf, O'Neill followed up the Khaled victory by entering the horse in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (formerly Turf Invitational Handicap) at Hollywood Park Racetrack. Lava Man rolled to victory in the 1¼ mile Whittingham, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. This victory made him the first horse since Eclipse Award winner Vanlandingham in 1985 to win a Grade 1 Turf and Dirt race in the same year.
Next up for Lava Man was an attempt to repeat in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Only California-bred Hall of Famer Native Diver had ever repeated in the Gold Cup in 1965-66-67. Lava Man stumbled badly at the start of the race and settled farther off the pace than he generally preferred. Nevertheless, he took the lead in mid-stretch and won by a short nose over longshot Ace Blue, who was carrying 10 pounds fewer than Lava Man. Lava Man earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure for his win. He also won the Gold Cup by both the biggest and smallest margins in race history.
Lava Man became the first horse since Triple Crown Winner Affirmed in 1979 to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup in the same year. He also became the first horse to win the Whittingham and the Gold Cup in the same year since Exceller in 1978. He was named "Horse of the Meet" for the second consecutive year at Hollywood Park Racetrack - the first horse to repeat the title since Native Diver.
After Lava Man's Gold Cup win, Daily Racing Form columnist Dick Jerardi wrote, "[N]early 27 months after his first visit to Hollywood Park Racetrack[finishing last at 57-1 in the Snow Chief Stakes], Lava Man was 3-5 in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. This is about as close to Seabiscuit as this sport has seen since Seabiscuit."
In August 2006, Lava Man won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes over a strong field of equal-weighted thoroughbreds including Giacomo, Perfect Drift, Good Reward, Super Frolic, and Magnum, while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 109. By virtue of this win, he became the first horse ever to take the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes in the same calendar year. In September, he was named "Horse of the Meet" for the 2006 Del Mar racing season. In October 2006, Lava Man won the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at the Oak Tree Racing Association's Santa Anita Park meet while carrying 126 lbs., 10 more lbs. than runner-up Brother Derek, and earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure. He was later named the Oak Tree Racing Association's "Horse of the Meet."
He was touted by many racing observers as a possible 2006 Horse of the Year candidate if he could beat favored Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on November 4, 2006. However, he was never a factor in the Classic, finishing seventh, well behind Bernardini (placing by a length) and the winner, Invasor, who came from Argentina by way of Uruguay. Blood-Horse magazine stated that Lava Man bled in the race. Despite his Breeders' Cup Classic loss, Lava Man's likeness was inserted into a snowglobe given to paid admissions at Hollywood Park Racetrack in December 2006.
In January 2007, Lava Man's first start of the year was the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita Park. Racing wide most of the way, he won by two lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. John Mucciolo of Brisnet.com wrote: "Lava Man continues to add to his legacy as one of the best California-bred runners we've witnessed in the past 20 years, and the ovation he received from the fans turning for home signifies just how loved this animal really is." The crowd at Santa Anita Park for the Sunshine Millions exceeded 36,000 which represented a record-high attendance for the event.
In March 2007, Lava Man repeated his 2006 victory in the $1,000,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, becoming only the third horse to do so (after John Henry and Milwaukee Brew). In this race, he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 while beating Molengao, Boboman, and 2007 Sunshine Millions Classic winner McCann's Mojave in front of 43,024 fans. He became the only horse to win two Santa Anita Handicaps and two Hollywood Gold Cups. Three weeks after this win, he was shipped to Dubai to compete in the $5,000,000 Dubai Duty Free Stakes over approximately 1⅛ miles on the turf. As was his characteristic when traveling away from California, Lava Man did not fare well. He finished last of 16 horses after he had the lead 3 furlongs from the finish line. In April 2007, at the close of the Santa Anita Park season, he was unanimously named "Horse of the Meet."
In June 2007, Lava Man returned to the California race circuit with a second place finish in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap. It was an open question as to whether the pace of the race, the after-effects of Dubai, age, or a better challenger in After Market produced the loss. However, Lava Man won his third consecutive Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, beating A.P. Xcellent, Big Booster, and Molengao on June 30, 2007. John Mucciolo of Brisnet.com wrote: "STD Racing and Wood's Lava Man added to his living-legend status with a courageous nose win in this historic event for conditioner Doug O'Neill. The Cal-bred six-year-old looked beaten in the final furlong but somehow found just enough to eke out the win under Corey Nakatani. The incredible gelding went 1¼ miles in 2:03⅕." John Shirreffs, A.P. Xcellent's trainer, stated after the race, "I was really proud of him [A.P. Xcellent]. He showed his character and there is a reason Lava Man is Lava Man." Lava Man's third consecutive Gold Cup matched Native Diver's three-peat of 1965–1967, earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105, and set a new course record for 1¼ miles on the new Hollywood cushion track surface. With his win on cushion track, Lava Man became the first horse to win Grade 1 races on three different surfaces: conventional dirt, turf, and cushion track.
After his Gold Cup win, Steve Haskin of the Blood-Horse contemplated Lava Man's failure to win outside of the state of California and called upon his owners to make another attempt at the Breeders' Cup. Haskin wrote: "Sure, it could backfire, but it’s not as if Lava Man’s reputation is going to suffer if it did. He’ll still be the king of California. He’ll still be a racing treasure. He’ll still be a legend. In short, he’ll still be Lava Man. And that’s enough in anyone’s lifetime." On July 15, 2007, Lava Man was named "Horse of the Meet" for the Hollywood Park Spring/Summer Meet for the third consecutive year.
On July 23, 2007, Lava Man's long-time groom, Noe Garcia, suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident just outside of the Del Mar Racetrack, where Lava Man was stabled in preparation for the Pacific Classic Stakes. The accident left Garcia without his left arm. O'Neill said, "He's lucky to be alive and he's got a lot to live for. He's got a job with this stable forever."
On August 19, 2007, Lava Man was sent-off as the 6-5 favorite in the Pacific Classic Stakes but did not take well to Del Mar's new Polytrack and finished a well-beaten sixth. He was then pointed to the October 7, 2007, Oak Tree Mile Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet in hopes that the shorter distance and firmer turf might benefit him. The gelding placed sixth and last, and jockey Corey Nakatani said, “There was no energy level there at all. We were sitting in a real good spot right behind the leaders, and then I can normally push the horse outside, but he just had no fight today. I don't know what the deal was.”
After a pre-race workout on October 28, 2007, Lava Man went off as the favorite in the November 3, 2007, California Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. The gelding broke well and assumed a stalking position. However, in mid stretch he again ran out of steam and placed 6th. Veterinarians at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Santa Barbara, CA, were unable to identify anything physically wrong with the horse, and O'Neill sent Lava Man to NexStar farm in Temecula, CA, for a planned several-month vacation from racing. Lava Man was also featured in an hour-plus DVD Biography giveaway at Hollywood Park Racetrack in December 2007. The biography was narrated by Jim Forbes of VH1 Behind the Music fame, and was later incorporated into the TVG Racing Network's biography series Legends.
Return to the Track and Retirement I and Retirement II
Lava Man was again examined at the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center before returning to Hollywood Park on January 26, 2008. Groom Noe Garcia also returned to the track to resume his duties. Garcia had taken a 6-month break to recuperate from the car accident in which he almost lost his life to a drunk driver. O'Neill ran Lava Man at the April 27, 2008, Khaled Stakes, where he finished a non-threatening third, after previously winning the race in track record time in 2006. Lava Man went on to run competitively in the $300,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 7, 2008, placing third, a neck behind the winner. O'Neill deemed the three-week timetable between the Whittingham and the Hollywood Gold Cup to be too short of a rest for Lava Man to make an attempt to win the race for the fourth consecutive time. The horse then started in the Grade I Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar Racetrack on July 20, 2008, finishing a sixth. Subsequent x-rays, performed at the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, revealed that the gelding's front ankles showed marked changes from x-rays taken earlier in the year. Based on the veterinarian's assessment and the gelding's performance in the Eddie Read, Lava Man was retired on July 30, 2008, after having made 46 starts.
On September 23, 2009, after Lava Man ran an official 3 furlong workout in 36 seconds flat at Hollywood Park (tied for the fastest time of the 24 horses that ran at that distance), O'Neill announced that the gelding was back in training and preparing for a comeback only if he could compete at a Grade 1 level. Lava Man's only comeback start was in the San Gabriel Handicap (Gr. IIT) at Santa Anita Park on December 27, 2009, where he finished last. It was announced on January 5, 2010, that Lava Man was retired for good. In May 2010, O'Neill said that the horse was his stable pony and that he had become accustomed to his new role. On May 5, 2012, Lava Man served as lead pony for three-year-old colt I'll Have Another in the post parade for the Kentucky Derby, a race which I'll Have Another subsequently won. Lava Man led I'll Have Another to the post again at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 19, 2012 for the Preakness Stakes. I'll Have Another won the Preakness and put himself in position to contend for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, but suffered a serious (though not life-threatening) injury days before the race and was scratched from the race and retired to stud.
Lava Man won 7 Grade 1 races, ranking him as the all-time leader among California-breds. His earnings of nearly $5.2 million place him third on the list of leading California-bred earners, behind Best Pal ($5,668,245) and Tiznow ($6,427,830). He and Game on Dude are the only horses to win the signature race at each of Southern California's major thoroughbred racetracks in one year, and he equalled Native Diver's record of winning three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups. Lava Man was the first horse in a generation to win a Grade 1 race on dirt and turf in the same year, and he is the only horse to win a North American Grade 1 race on dirt, turf, and an artificial racing surface. He is the all-time leading earner among claimers and is arguably the greatest claim in racing history.
He was named the 2005 California-Bred Champion Older Horse and Horse of the Year and 2006 Champion Older Horse, Turf Horse, and Horse of the Year by the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association (CTBA), becoming the first repeat California-bred Horse of the Year since Tiznow in 2000 and 2001. In 2007, he was named Champion Older Horse by the CTBA.