2005-2007: Lava Man Equals the Diver

When Hollywood Park's 2005 spring/summer meet got underway, Lava Man and Doug O'Neill had been a team for several months. Claimed out of the Lonnie Arterburn barn at Del Mar the previous summer, Lava Man had a mixed bag or results much like when he was with his previous trainer. So far, Lava Man had four career wins, the most recent being in the 2004 Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex Park weeks after O'Neill claimed him. Since then, he had divided his starts between minor awards and off the board finishes.

The latter happened again in Lava Man's first start of the Hollypark meet, which featured a sixth in the Tiznow Stakes. Fortunes were reversed quickly, however, as the California-bred son of Slew City Slew came back to score an allowance optional claiming win and then the Grade II Californian Stakes. The Californian had long been a prep for the track's biggest race, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and that was where Lava Man was seen next.

The 2005 renewal marked the gelding's first start in the famed event, and he had nine rivals to contend with. The wagering was led by Limehouse, recent winner of Belmont Park's Grade II Brooklyn Handicap, at 1.30-1, and Congrats, the runner-up in Hollywood Park's Ack Ack Handicap about a month earlier. Lava Man went off as the third choice at 6-1 with Patrick Valenzuela back aboard after the two captured the Californian.

But after spending much of the race closely tracking Congrats in second, Lava Man took over, getting the lead at the one-mile mark and winning like a 1-5 favorite. He outdistanced his rivals and romped to the wire by an impressive 8 3/4 lengths. The dark bay horse set a new record for margin of victory that day, and delivered a truly memorable performance in one of racing's biggest events.

The old saying of "what a difference a year makes" rang true for Lava Man when he was entered in the 2006 Gold Cup. No horse had defeated him so far that year, and he had added to his first Gold Cup by winning the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap in March. He also scored another big victory in the Grade I Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap before the Gold Cup, and he clearly had the momentum going into his title defense.

The returning champion faced a shorter field and had shorter odds when he left the gate. Only four horses took him on, and just the 2-1 Magnum was seen with any chance to dethrone the 3-5 favorite.

It did not happen. With now-regular rider Corey Nakatani in the irons, Lava Man settled in third as Magnum and Ace Blue took turns leading. Lava Man passed Ace Blue in the far turn and engaged in an epic stretch battle with Magnum, who gave it his all in attempting to pull off the upset on the inside. But Lava Man dug deep and put him away while holding off a fierce Ace Blue to defeat the longshot by a nose, giving him a share of the race record for smallest margin of victory. The win put Lava Man in rare company, for only Native Diver had won the Gold Cup more than once since the race debuted in 1938. That made Lava Man's second Gold Cup score even bigger than the first, and ensured his place in racing history.

When Lava Man arrived at Hollywood Park in the spring of 2007, he could now call himself a two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner as well as a Pacific Classic winner. He was also out to do what only Native Diver had before him: win three Hollywood Gold Cups. He was in the midst of a two-race winless streak, having finished sixteenth in the Dubai Duty Free and second in the Charles Whittingham, but bettors liked his chances to make it three straight in the track's marquee race, giving him odds of 7-5. Going by the tote board, his major opposition was Molengao, a Brazilan-bred who won Hollypark's Grade II Mervyn LeRoy Handicap in early May.

In total, nine rivals joined Lava Man on track, but the popular gelding was not intimidated. Just as he had in 2005 and 2006, he moved into early contention, getting into second well before the first turn. He let A.P. Xcellent set a slow pace for much of the way before taking over near the top of the stretch. But A.P. Xcellent was ready to challenge the favorite, grabbing the lead right back on the inside as he began the stretch run. Lava Man and Nakatani worked to catch up to him. From behind came Big Booster at odds of over 24-1. He found some acceleration and blasted towards the leaders. Lava Man inched closer to A.P. Xcellent as the Hollywood Gold Cup readied for a photo finish. The two gave immense effort, bringing out the best in each other as Big Booster continued his upset bid.

The Hollywood Park crowd screamed as the trio neared the wire. A.P. Xcellent was outstanding, but Lava Man had more resolve. In the final couple of jumps, the two-time defending champion found more and got in front just in time to stand alongside Native Diver as a three-time Hollywood Gold Cup champion.

Just as he had the previous year, Lava Man won the race by a nose, but he transformed himself into a living legend with his greatest triumph. Just like with Native Diver forty years before, Lava Man's saga resonated with local racing fans due to his being a California-bred. The fact he had gone from a claiming horse to Grade I champion added to his aura, making him the protagonist in a rags-to-riches story like John Henry and Seabiscuit decades earlier.

As of the summer of 2020, Lava Man stands as the fourth-highest earning California-bred of all-time with more than $5.2 million to his name. The dark bay who debuted at Stockton had come a long way since that first start some four years prior.

Achieving his third Hollywood Gold Cup netted Lava Man his third straight California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association California-bred Older Male Award to go with his two California-bred Horse of the Year honors. It also turned him into a living legend, and it firmly placed in the pantheon of greatest and most beloved horses born in the Golden State. And it is a status that was both well-earned and well-deserved.

It took forty years for a horse to match Native Diver's Hollywood Gold Cup record, and it may be forty years before someone else matches that feat. But just for that reason, that ability to defy history, Lava Man stands as one of the most special horses to ever grace the state of California.


2012 Hollywood Park Media Guide, page 68

Entry added August 9, 2020 by AF.