08/18/2005 12:00AM

Approach Classic favorites with caution


DEL MAR, Calif. - To win the Pacific Classic, you have to beat two horses - a Grade 1 winner with a towering 120 last-start Beyer, and a rapidly improving colt who in only three months has developed from maiden to the top 3-year-old in California.

Lava Man (9-5) and Surf Cat (3-1) enter the $1 million Pacific Classic on Sunday with fitting credentials and high expectations. Yet the first two choices on the morning line face challenges that must be reconciled before a bet is made on, or against, either of them.

The issue for Hollywood Gold Cup winner Lava Man is whether brilliant performances at Hollywood Park - he won the Gold Cup by nearly nine - are guaranteed to be reproduced at Del Mar. Gentlemen (1997) is the only horse to win the Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in the same year.

Lightly raced Surf Cat faces a twofold dilemma. Five-length winner of the Swaps Stakes, Surf Cat will meet older and race 1 1/4 miles for the first time. While 3-year-olds have achieved surprising success in the Pacific Classic (eight attempts, three wins), it is premature to put Surf Cat on par with previous 3-year-old winners Came Home, General Challenge, and Best Pal.

The Pacific Classic is a formality if Lava Man repeats either blowout stakes win at Hollywood. He is simply the fastest horse, by a long way. Lava Man earned a 116 in the Californian, followed by 120 in the Gold Cup. But he has never raced on the Del Mar main track.

Trainer Doug O'Neill acknowledged that cynical handicappers might have reason for concern.

"No doubt about it - at Hollywood, if you have speed, or tactical speed, you're so much more dangerous," he said.

The O'Neill-trained Sky Jack illustrated the difficulty of making the transition from Hollywood to Del Mar.

A front-running freak at Hollywood, where he went 6 for 6, including the Gold Cup, Sky Jack unraveled at Del Mar. He set the pace in the 2002 Pacific Classic, wilted, and ended up 0 for 3 overall at Del Mar. Lava Man will race on the Del Mar main track for the first time; O'Neill said he believes creditable turf-race efforts here last year bode well.

"He handled the weather well - it's a heavier air - and it didn't bother him the day we claimed him," O'Neill said. "And he handled the paddock. At Del Mar, the paddock can get to a lot of horses."

Bettors who trust Lava Man will take every bit of 9-5, despite a growing list of Gold Cup winners foiled in the Pacific Classic that includes Total Impact, Sky Jack, Futural (a disqualified Gold Cup winner), Siphon, Slew of Damascus, and Best Pal in 1993.

The popular alternative to Lava Man is Surf Cat, whose stakes r?sum? includes a runner-up finish in a Grade 3 with four runners, and Grade 2 victory in a weak field. Yet age may be the only real similarity Surf Cat has with 3-year-old Pacific Classic winners Came Home, General Challenge, and Best Pal.

Came Home was a multiple Grade 1 winner who had raced 10 times before the 2002 Pacific Classic; General Challenge was a Grade 1 winner with eight starts (seven stakes) before his 1999 win; Best Pal was a Grade 1 winner with 14 starts prior to winning in 1991.

"The 3-year-olds that have won turned out to be super-horses," Surf Cat's trainer Bruce Headley said. "Maybe I'm at a disadvantage not having as many races. He can't make any mistakes."

The 105 Beyer that Surf Cat earned in the Swaps is still 12 points below the recent Pacific Classic par, yet Surf Cat should continue his upward pattern.

"He's not finished [improving] by any means," Headley said. "[Horses] are maturing, filling out, getting taller and longer and better until they're 5."

Beyond the class jump, Surf Cat will try become only the second horse to win the Pacific Classic in his initial try at 1 1/4 miles. Candy Ride in 2003 was the other.

"If [Surf Cat] can go a mile and a quarter, he will be very tough," Headley said.

While the older horses Sunday have established their ability, Surf Cat should continue to improve. It is not his only attribute. The 3-year-old gets a seven-pound weight break (Surf Cat carries 117; older males carry 124; the mare Island Fashion carries 119).

Former trainer Gary Jones engineered 3-year-old Best Pal's victory over older in the first Pacific Classic in 1991, and said he believes weight matters.

"That's what made us run - the eight pounds," he said. "That, and the fact [Best Pal] was doing so good."

In 1991, older carried 124; 3-year-olds carried 116. According to Jones, the seven-pound weight break Sunday is one reason why handicappers should take Surf Cat seriously.

"Going a mile and a quarter, that's a lot of lengths," Jones said. "This is the time of year when you can get away with it - look at Melhor Ainda."

A 3-year-old filly facing older last Saturday in the 1 3/16-mile Beverly D., Melhor Ainda finished third, beaten a neck.

Is 3-year-old Surf Cat up to the challenge in his first against older, first at 1 1/4 miles? Can race favorite Lava Man be relied on to reproduce his Hollywood form at Del Mar?

The answers will determine how to play the race - with a conservative lean that centers on the chalk, or a swing-for-the-fences approach with expectations that the 2005 Pacific Classic results will blow up the tote.