10/04/2006 12:00AM

Best in the West needs a road win


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Now that he is back at Hollywood Park, Lava Man is no longer in the witness protection program. He entered it this summer at Del Mar, when a parade of curious visitors to trainer Doug O'Neill's barn forced his enterprising lads to change the name taped to his stall door. The same dark bay horse with the wide blaze was inside the stall, but those who didn't recognize him by looks alone would walk right by. After all, who cares about a horse "named" Jim Shorts?

There's good reason why Lava Man has become so popular. The former claimer is 6 for 6 this year with Grade 1 victories on turf and dirt. He became the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year. He is unquestionably the best older horse in the West, a position he will seek to retain when he runs on Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

A victory in the 1 1/8-mile Goodwood will send Lava Man to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic with a chance to secure Eclipse Awards as both Horse of the Year and champion older horse. Standing in his way in the Classic should be the 3-year-old Bernardini, the leading candidate for Horse of the Year - who will have his final prep on Saturday in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park - as well as the East's top older horse, Invasor, who had to skip the Gold Cup after developing a fever late last week.

Lava Man was not an original nominee to the Breeders' Cup, and under old rules would have had to be supplemented to the Classic for $450,000. The Breeders' Cup, however, instituted new rules this year that allow an older horse to be nominated earlier and at less cost. Lava Man was made eligible on Wednesday for $150,000 by the Kenly family's STD Racing Stable and co-owner Jason Wood. By doing so, he can now run for the full prize money in the Goodwood, a Breeders' Cup-supplemented race.

Those associated with Lava Man, most notably his owners, are carrying ever-growing chips on their shoulders over their belief that, despite Lava Man's stellar record this year, he is still not appreciated by those outside his home state. It was a theme repeatedly visited by co-owner Steve Kenly following the Pacific Classic. Kenly would love nothing more than for Lava Man to win over his remaining skeptics.

The reason for the skepticism is Lava Man's dismal record outside California. In January 2005, he went to Gulfstream Park for the Sunshine Millions Classic, in which he finished seventh in a field of 12. Last fall, he went to Belmont Park for the Jockey Club Gold Cup but finished a distant seventh in a field of eight. Last November, he traveled to Tokyo for the Japan Cup Dirt, in which he finished 11th of 16 and emerged from the race with a nasty hoof injury.

Lava Man might not be the road warrior, but O'Neill is no road worrier. He believes the circumstances that prevented Lava Man from running well in his three previous road trips can be overcome for the 1 1/4-mile Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4.

"If he ships a couple of weeks out, he'll be fine," O'Neill said at his Hollywood Park barn. "In New York, he got in late and never settled in. It was a debacle. In Florida, he shipped three or four days out and never got to settle in. In Japan, within a week he was on a normal routine. If all goes well Saturday, he'll leave for Kentucky about three weeks out."

The Goodwood will round up the usual suspects among Southern California's older horses. Super Frolic (third in the Pacific Classic), Giacomo (fifth), Magnum (seventh), and Preachinatthebar (eighth) are all expected to run, along with Brother Derek, the Santa Anita Derby winner, who is unbeaten in four starts at Santa Anita.

There is a twist to the Goodwood, though. Unlike the Pacific Classic, which was weight-for-age, the Goodwood is a handicap. Lava Man was assigned top weight of 126 pounds, the most he has ever been given in a handicap. Giacomo gets eight pounds from him, Super Frolic nine, and Brother Derek 11.

In other Classic developments:

* Bernardini is expected to have only a handful of rivals in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. Trainer Nick Zito was considering entering both Andromeda's Hero and Wanderin Boy, and trainer Aidan O'Brien was bringing in Irish Derby winner Dylan Thomas to try the dirt for the first time. Entries for the race were to be taken on Thursday.

* Tom Albertrani, who trains Bernardini, said his colt is "doing as well as he was going into the Travers." Regarding the Classic, "I still believe he's the horse to beat," Albertrani said.

* Both Ball Four (Kentucky Cup Classic) and It's No Joke (Hawthorne Gold Cup) may have earned themselves berths with their victories last week.

* Invasor's illness last week had subsided to the point where he could return to the track and train on Tuesday, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. McLaughlin said Invasor should work again Sunday or Monday, "and then weekly to the Breeders' Cup."

* Although Discreet Cat, the unbeaten winner of the Jerome, is highly ranked in this week's list of contenders by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, he is not expected to run in the Classic. He is expected to instead await the Cigar Mile on Nov. 25 at Aqueduct.- additional reporting by David Grening