08/18/2005 11:00PM

Dismissed not long ago, Lava Man now a keeper

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DEL MAR, Calif. - At times in his life, Lava Man has been a gelding that no one really wanted, the best claim of the 2004 Del Mar meeting, and lately the hottest older horse in California.

The leading California-bred of 2005, Lava Man will go for his third consecutive stakes win in Sunday's $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. In his last start, he won the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup by 8 3/4 lengths on July 9.

His ascension over the last few months has been remarkable for a gelding whose first trainer and co-breeder, Lonnie Arterburn, was not too encouraged with his early training.

Carol Lingenfelter, who raised Lava Man at her farm near Fresno, recalls hearing Arterburn's concerns before Lava Man's first start.

"Lonnie wasn't too impressed when he took him to the training track to be broken," Lingenfelter said Thursday. "I told Lonnie, 'Trust me. When he's out with other yearlings, he runs so low to the ground. He can sure cover a lot of ground.'

"Lonnie was like, 'Yeah, right.' He offered to sell him back after 30 or 60 days. I wasn't in a position [to buy] at the time."

Lava Man worked out after all for Arterburn and his partners Kim and Eve Kuhlmann. They raced Lava Man for the first 14 months of his career, a period that included three wins. Lava Man finished fourth in a $12,500 claiming race for maidens in his debut at the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton in June 2003, beat maidens in his fifth career start, and won two more races before he was entered to be claimed for $50,000 at Del Mar on Aug. 13, 2004.

Lava Man was taken that day by Steve and Dave Kenley and Jason Wood and turned over to trainer Doug O'Neill. Since then, Lava Man has won three stakes and placed in four stakes.

Kim Kuhlmann, a practicing veterinarian at northern California tracks, said he is disappointed not to own Lava Man.

"I've been more than happy with the way the horse is going," Kuhlmann said. "There is a little bit of mixed emotions. You wish you still own them. I've been breeding horses for quite a while, and we breed to sell. I still race some, but my focus is on the sales and breeding. He's Cal-bred and we're getting breeders' awards."

Lingenfelter owns Li'l Ms. Leonard, the dam of Lava Man. Lingenfelter bred and raced the mare, who is by Nostalgia's Star, and later lost her via a claim. But a few years ago, Lingenfelter reacquired Li'l Ms. Leonard when Arterburn and the Kuhlmanns were reducing their holdings.

"Lava Man was her third foal," she said. "Lonnie called and we worked it out where he got the foal and I got the mare."

Li'l Ms. Leonard, who won 8 of 18 starts and $119,772, has had three winners from three starters. Lava Man, who is by Slew City Slew, is her only stakes winner. Li'l Ms. Leonard lost two foals by Benchmark in recent years. She was bred to Unusual Heat earlier this year, but did not get in foal, Lingenfelter said.

Lingenfelter said Li'l Ms. Leonard will be sent to Kentucky to be bred next year. She will leave as a broodmare that has produced a Grade 1 stakes winner.

Lingenfelter said she vividly remembers the day in the winter of 2000-01, when Li'l Ms. Leonard returned to her farm after an absence of nearly four years. At the time, Li'l Ms. Leonard was 9 and a rather anonymous broodmare.

"It took her awhile to figure it out, but she knew she had been here before," Lingenfelter said. "She stood there [in the paddock] forever. She stopped and turned her head [in] the other direction. You could see she was thinking.

"She kept looking at me through the window," she said. "It was amazing to see that. She knew she had been here before. It's really delightful that she's back."