08/18/2006 12:00AM

Classic has 'tough' written all over it


DEL MAR, Calif. - All that Lava Man does is beat West Coast cream puffs. Perfect Drift has not won a race in a year. And poor Giacomo - did he really win the Kentucky Derby?

Go ahead and poke fun. Easy fodder. But when those three cut loose over 1 1/4 miles Sunday in the $1 million at Del Mar - eight entered the deepest race of the year in California - the winner commands respect. It may be the only thing Lava Man lacks.

"To show up and dance every dance all year long, that deserves a lot of credit," Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill, said. "Even if you are facing some familiar faces."

The competition is deep Sunday. Perfect Drift has earned $4.5 million and enters in top form. Giacomo has trained super following a wake-up comeback win. Magnum and Super Frolic are graded stakes winners. Front-runner Preachinatthebar could get loose. Good Reward is a top turf horse trying dirt. Top This and That can finish.

The Grade 1 Pacific Classic is race 8 on a card that includes two standouts - Lava Man and 2004 juvenile champion Declan's Moon, in the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien Handicap. That seven-furlong sprint goes as race 6. A $1 million guaranteed pick six pool covers races 5-10, and bettors could do worse than single Lava Man in the eight-runner Pacific Classic.

What concerns O'Neill?

"Seven other horses," he said.

It should be no problem. Lava Man is a faster, better horse than his rivals, with five wins this year that include three Grade 1's - the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Charles Whittingham on turf. But what did he beat? Circumstances, for one thing.

Odds-on to win the Gold Cup six weeks ago, Lava Man was stabled in an unfamiliar barn, he stumbled at the start, and conceded tactical advantage and weight while racing on a deep track that he was uncomfortable with. Lava Man overcame it all and won by a nose. It was not brilliant, but it was dead game. This year, that is Lava Man's style.

"Granted, his victories this year maybe haven't been as impressive, but knock on wood, there's been more in the tank when you get back to the barn," O'Neill said, crediting jockey Corey Nakatani for a patient riding style.

Owned by Steve and Dave Kenly and Jason Wood, Lava Man would be the first horse to win California's three biggest handicap races in the same year. Not bad for a horse claimed two summers ago for $50,000.

Perfect Drift finished second in the Pacific Classic the past two years, but recent speed figures indicate the 7-year-old gelding has lost a little something. Trainer Murray Johnson scoffs at the notion.

"Numbers mean nothing," Johnson said. "I've never known a horse to be able to read them."

How about handicappers who use them? "Good luck to them," the trainer said.

Perfect Drift has not cracked 100 on the Beyer Speed Figure scale this year. Par for the Pacific Classic is 116. If Perfect Drift has slowed down, it would be hard to tell by looking at him. He was full of himself galloping on the Del Mar track this week, and Johnson believes the 7-year-old "gets a little better every year. He gets a little bigger, a little stronger."

A runner-up finish July 29 in the Grade 3 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington was designed as a prep race for the Pacific Classic.

"Our whole agenda was to be here, to win this race," Johnson said. "We feel like we're in great shape."

Perfect Drift has lost eight straight, but won 11 of 39 overall. He will be ridden by Mark Guidry.

In the weeks following his July 22 comeback win, Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo has worked extremely well for trainer John Shirreffs. His deep-closing victory in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego was his first win since the 2005 Derby. Obviously, the colt is suited to the Pacific Classic distance.

"His running style makes him better than some horses at a mile and a quarter because he has that long stride, and he keeps repeating it," Shirreffs said. "He's not going to shorten stride."

But the trainer was also candid about the four-race sequence Giacomo will follow leading to a career finale in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Shirreffs was asked if the Pacific Classic would be Giacomo's best race.

"No," he said. "This is only his second race off a long layoff. I think he should improve, and continue to improve. I think racing helps him."

Giacomo will race during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and is expected to be retired by owner Jerry and Ann Moss after the Breeders' Cup. Giacomo has won 3 of 13, and Shirreffs only smiles when reminded his colt's career-best Beyer Figure is 103. "Giacomo is just going to have to run a little better," he said.

The field

Pacific Classic
Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1Top This and ThatJ. Valdivia Jr.20-1
2Lava ManC. Nakatani1-1
3PreachinatthebarV. Espinoza15-1
4GiacomoM. Smith9-2
5MagnumA. Solis6-1
6Perfect DriftM. Guidry6-1
7Super FrolicJ. Court 10-1
8Good RewardG. Gomez12-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* All starters carry 124 pounds
* Television: Saturday, 7-8 p.m. Eastern; ESPN2