09/24/2009 11:22AM

Old Man Lava

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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.