04/27/2006 11:00PM

Bargain exhibit A: Lava Man


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Before he became rich and famous, Lava Man was a useful turf horse. also was a claiming horse, which makes him a fitting equine celebrity for the $1.3 million California Gold Rush program Sunday at Hollywood Park.

Six stakes are included on the 10-race program for California-bred runners, with a recurring theme. That is, you don't have to spend a fortune to buy a good horse. Just ask trainer Doug O'Neill, who claimed Lava Man for $50,000 two years ago and developed him into a Grade 1 winner with earnings of more than $2 million.

"We've been lucky," O'Neill said. "A lot of horses we've dealt with over the years have not been the million-dollar horses - a lot of the Cal-breds aren't your million-dollar yearling buys."

Few runners Sunday were silver-spoon darlings, and certainly not O'Neill's best three. Lava Man switches to grass for the $175,000 Khaled Stakes; former maiden claimer Sam's Ace stands out in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes; and $32,000 claim Areyoutalkintome is the early favorite for the $150,000 Tiznow Stakes.

The Tiznow is the first leg in the $1 million guaranteed pick six on a card that offers opportunities for horseplayers and horse owners alike.

"It's what Gold Rush and Cal Cup days are all about," O'Neill said. "Horses that don't have the big-time sales ring numbers are still able to run for good money."

The three other stakes on the Gold Rush card include rags-to-riches runners.

* Proposed, a full sister to Grade 1 winner Silent Sighs, was always well regarded. But when she runs seven furlongs in the $150,000 B. Thoughtful for fillies and mares, she faces stakes winner Somethinaboutlaura, who ran for a $32,000 tag.

* Moscow Burning was claimed in 2003 for $25,000. She has earned more than $1.2 million and is favored to win the $150,000 Fran's Valentine for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on turf. She will have to catch Dancing Edie.

* Bai and Bai, one of the favorites in the $200,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, was purchased for only $3,200. She has earned $165,223. She meets She's an Eleven and Chosen Royalty in the 1 1/16-mile race.

There is little doubt about the star of the Gold Rush program. The 5-year-old Lava Man burst into the handicap division last summer with a runaway win in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and returned to top form this past winter by winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.

So what is a Grade 1 dirt horse doing in a turf race restricted for California-breds?

"We think it's a good stepping-stone to the rest of the year," O'Neill said. "It is still a lot of money even though it's not the Grade 1 kind of money. He's a gelding, so you're not concerned about picking off all the real prestigious races all the time."

O'Neill, and owners Steve Kenly and Jason Wood, have targeted the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 8 and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar as immediate goals for summer. The handicapping quandary Sunday is deciding whether a Grade 1 dirt win transfers to a turf stakes.

"I think he can go either way," O'Neill said. "I worked him on the grass the other day; he worked fantastic."

The main threat to Lava Man is a horse that O'Neill trained for one race. Super Strut finished fifth in his maiden claiming debut for O'Neill in January 2003, subsequently was sidelined for a year and changed barns, and runs now for Craig Dollase. Super Strut won the $113,000 Crystal Water for Cal-bred turf horses last month at Santa Anita, and is 6 for 14 on grass.

Top This and That, claimed by Dan Hendricks for $40,000 from his second start, was second in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes in his last start Feb. 4. He missed the Santa Anita Handicap with a quarter crack.

Cheroot and Skywalker Red are front-runners who could compromise each other on the lead; Orbits World had trouble when he finished fifth behind Super Strut last time; Jack's Wild finished second in a second-level allowance turf route last out.

Gold Rush Day

1B. Thoughtful$150,00012:30 p.m.
3Fran's Valentine$150,0001:34 p.m.
5Tiznow$150,0002:41 p.m.
6Melair$200,000 3:14 p.m.
8Khaled$150,0004:18 p.m.
9Snow Chief$250,0004:48 p.m.

* $1 million guaranteed pick six on races 5-10

The field

Khaled Stakes
Purse: $150,000; 1 1/8 miles, turf

1CherootD. Flores1209-2
2Super StrutT. Baze1225-1
3Skywalker RedP. Valenzuela11412-1
4Orbits WorldM. Pedroza11420-1
5Top This and ThatA. Solis11410-1
6Lil MitchJ. Ochoa11630-1
7Jack's WildV. Espinoza11420-1
8Lava ManC. Nakatani1244-5
9Legal LogicO. Berrio11430-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly