03/05/2007 1:00AM

Desert may be a trip too far


ARCADIA, Calif. - It should be clear by now that Lava Man, when given a fighting chance, is prepared to win his races by any means necessary. The 70th running of $1 million Santa Anita Handicap last Saturday offered another nugget of proof, and there are 43,024 witnesses available to testify.

Faced with a Euro-style pace, courtesy of the deliberate Julien Leparoux aboard a relaxed Ball Four, Lava Man and his fellow competitors found themselves lobbing around the Santa Anita main track as if nothing more was at stake than a round of drinks in the clubhouse.

Horses don't really laugh, of course. But Lava Man could have been allowed a wry smile when he found himself just a length off the lead after a three-quarter time of 1:12.65, especially since his slave-driving trainer, Doug O'Neill, had asked him to work the same distance in 1:12.20 eight days before the race. What was that about?

Still, a slow pace tends to float all the boats. Rather than slingshotting away from his opposition on the final turn and coasting home (see the 2006 Pacific Classic or the 2006 Goodwood Handicap), Lava Man was surrounded by fresh horses through a fourth quarter in 23.99 seconds. At the top of the stretch there was a considerable amount of work to be done, and no California horse since the days of two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner John Henry has been a more willing soldier than Lava Man. His winning margin of three-quarters of a length over fellow 6-year-old Molengao was admirable under the circumstances.

Skeptics and contrarians - the people who usually control the post-race pace - will wonder why Lava Man did not run faster and win by wide daylight, if he's such hot stuff. His jockey, Corey Nakatani, would reply, Why should he?

Just as Bill Shoemaker's fine brushstrokes turned the reluctant hero Ferdinand into a Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year, Nakatani rations the energetic Lava Man with proprietary caution. There is little doubt that Lava Man could do a Mount St. Helens at the drop of a hat - he proved that under Pat Valenzuela in the 2005 Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic - but Nakatani has the discipline to just say no. Slower is better. Winning is everything.

As a result, Lava Man now rests alone among the grand older horses who have thrilled hometown crowds as a two-time winner of both the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Santa Anita Handicap. His local fan base is loyal and his national reputation at least has graduated from West Coast flash to California institution.

O'Neill has managed the care and conditioning of Lava Man with unflustered simplicity. He takes all the responsibility and yet continues to spread the credit for a horse who now has won 13 of 24 starts, eight major stakes and more than $4.5 million under his name. Owners Steve Kenly, his father, Dave, and Jason Wood deserve their share of praise, but it has been O'Neill, his assistant Leandro Mora, exercise rider Tony Romero, groom Noe Garcia and farrier Jimmy Jimenez who have produced a formidable Lava Man, time after time.

"We're the ones who learn from Lava Man," O'Neill has said.

It is no secret that the entire camp continues to choke on the chicken bone of Lava Man's dismal record once he leaves California airspace. At 0 for 4 and counting, this does not even include the four times he vanned from northern California to lose in Southern California for his former trainer and part-owner, Lonnie Arterburn.

Sifting through the tea leaves of his postrace comments last Saturday, it's pretty clear that O'Neill would be content to campaign Lava Man in California, while maybe taking another crack at an out-of-town pot when conditions are perfect.

But this is the silly season of the Thoroughbred year, when the petrodollars dangled by the Dubai Racing Festival dazzle all but the most self-disciplined owners and trainers. Steve Kenly insists their horse is a "good traveler" whose fortunes have been compromised by dirt tracks he can't handle. Based on three straight wins on the grass - two of them in restricted company - Kenly and partners think their horse can win a nine-furlong turf race somewhere on the road. And so they have chosen the longest possible road, halfway around the world, to run in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on the evening of March 31.

"It's the trip," said an enthusiastic Jason Wood, who could find a good time in Baghdad.

"It's the money," countered Steve Kenly, the man astute enough to orchestrate Lava Man's $50,000 claim back in August of 2004.

No argument on either count. But in the end, it had better be the horse that takes you there, and nothing else. Asking a 6-year-old Lava Man to try to do something he has never done before - travel and win - is risky on paper, jeopardizing not only the rest of the 2007 campaign but his career as well. There have been any number of American horses who paid the ultimate price as casualties of arduous foreign journeys, including Star Over the Bay, Big Jag, and Akabir. John Henry, Lava Man's patron saint, was nearly one of them as well.

"It was the worst decision I ever made," said the late Sam Rubin, owner of John Henry, referring to the 1982 Japan Cup. "He got so sick there, and still we ran him, and he ran terrible. All because I wanted share him with my friends and business associates in Japan. I let my ego get in the way."

Sometimes, that is the highest hurdle a Thoroughbred has to face.