09/24/2009 11:22AM

Old Man Lava


I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to have owned Lava Man during the height of his powers. Three Hollywood Gold Cups. Two Santa Anita Handicaps. A Pacific Classic and a Whittingham Memorial. Heady stuff. And having not owned him, neither can I imagine what it must have been like when that feeling was gone. That is why I hesitate to criticize owners Steve Kenly and Jason Wood for putting Lava Man back into training with Doug O'Neill at Hollywood Park.

The families of Kenly and Wood are not starving. They don't need the dough. But they are not the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts or the Bancrofts. They do not answer to Magnier, Stronach, Maktoum or Abdullah. They were a claiming partnership, taking a $50,000 shot, and instead of a decent return on investment they struck a five-million dollar vein of gold. Blind luck, and they knew it.

There was never a second best horse in the Kenly-Wood partnership. They were never in a position to breed more like Lava Man, or buy in bulk in hopes another one would come along. Unless you are Lee Trevino, lightning rarely strikes twice. When Lava Man left the scene last summer, after going a year without winning a race, the void was immense--for his fans, sure, but for his owners, immeasurably. And the only way they will ever get another Lava Man is to go get the old one...even if he is eight years old.

In 1985, John Henry was asked to give it one more try at age 10 by owner Sam Rubin, after Ol' John had earned $6 million and spent several months in "retirement." John was working just fine for Ron McAnally, then one day he hit a funny spot on the Hollywood turf, came up with a little heat in a ligament, and McAnally pulled the plug.

In 1988, after a year and a half of retirement, the hopelessly sterile champion Precisionist was sent back into training in California by his frustrated owner, Fred Hooper. Trainer John Russell crafted a miraculous, nine-race campaign for the 7-year-old stallion between June and December, which included two stakes wins, close seconds on both dirt and turf at Hollywood Park, and a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint when he was beaten barely two lengths by Gulch. Precisionist ran once more in Florida then was through for good.

Lava Man was a grand racehorse, but he has never been mistaken for Precisionist or John Henry. Perhaps there is some kind of a comeback in the old boy, although no one--especially his owners--should count on it. And it is simply delusional to think that Lava Man will be able to return to any kind of Grade 1 level. His form tapered badly with the advent of synthetic surfaces in Southern California. His final pair of significant wins--one on dirt and one on synthetic--were desperate finishes against horses never heard from again. Even at the peak of his competitive ability, Lava Man could not take his best race outside Southern California. Today, he is a sound and healthy animal, but to suggest that minor ankle surgery and soft tissue stem cell treatments can reverse any of those harsh realities is placing far too much faith in veterinary science, and too little belief in the natural rise and fall of a Thoroughbred's competitive arc.

So what would that leave for Lava Man, if he does become raceworthy in O'Neill's eyes? Cal Cups and Gold Rush days, mostly. Maybe a weak field in a Sunshine Millions, if those races are still around. Pick a major race contested in California this year and overlay the last winning image of Lava Man onto its running. Which one could he have won?

But worry not. Lava Man is in good hands, which include his one-armed former groom, Noe Garcia. Truth is, no horse will be having more fun than Lava Man back at the track, where he gets to be lord of all he surveys, sleek and sauntering, a reminder to everyone of just how good a racehorse can be. So let him have his quick, short workouts, his rich, nourishing feed, and his round-the-clock concierge service. If he makes it to a race, I will be pleasantly surprised. In the meantime, let Lava Man enjoy his personal fantasy camp.

Tawny Madison More than 1 year ago
It could be seen as a tremendous opportunity. Is stem-cell therapy making this old warrior well enough to race again? It is a very important question because the implications go so far. As for greed, I do not think so. In fact, any winnings are going to a racing rescue fund (CARMA).
andre lobanoff More than 1 year ago
leave the poor horse alone he has nothing to prove. his injury is command to the sythenic tracks,hate to see him get reinjured.the kentucky horse park has room
joanne More than 1 year ago
Now, 1 month later, he is at a clinic, for a check-up. My guess, is they will tell us, he is in the best shape of his life and SOON be entered in a race. They want to show what GREAT care they take of him. This breaks my heart! He is a CHAMPION, one of the most popular horses of all time! Why they risk his life, I will NEVER understand. He has NOTHING to prove! I wish him all the best, but this makes me so sad, for him.
dan c More than 1 year ago
Ship East run him on DIRT and he will win Graded races again, the older division stinks all the good ones retire. He must have DIRT or he will break down and run up the track
jim More than 1 year ago
Jay, Imagine if Cali had set aside a race called the Lava Man...and Lava Man won it. Would that be a first?
allbutton More than 1 year ago
The line I liked best in your piece was "His form tapered badly with the advent of synthetic surfaces in Southern California." The whole industry has tapered badly since synthetics. Did you see Indian Blessing's last two races? How can this be the same horse? As Baffert said "Never again at Hollywood". It's time the industry quit letting PETA run their business before there's no business left.
Alex - UK More than 1 year ago
Hi All, Just found this excellent blog. I have fallen in love with US Horse racing and watch each night from the UK and have recorded my results through my blog. Love the way in the US the riders just go for it, when compared with some of the longer racing here in the UK they sit tight and then just have a race for the last furlong. Rachel Alexandra is my fav. Regards Alex
Cate More than 1 year ago
I feel that this horse won enough money for the greedy owners & why would you risk injury to this horse ?
C More than 1 year ago
"Thoroughbreds love to run, live a relativily sumptious life style equine speaking. They are pampered daily, workout about 2 minutes a day are hand walked, groomed and fed the best feed in the world." What? Sorry, but if horses had their choice, they wouldn't be confined to stalls for 23 hours a day. Let's not get carried away with the glorious lifestyle stuff.
David R More than 1 year ago
The only problem with Lava Man's comeback is the talk about him racing exclusively in Grade I competition. There is no way he will be competitive at that level. Maybe a restricted Cal. stakes race or a soft listed stakes, but that's about it.