10/31/2007 11:00PM

Epic Power, Carava's latest hard-hitter

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Most of the attention will be lavished upon Lava Man on Saturday when he makes his California Cup debut in the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic at 1 1/8 miles, and rightfully so.

On paper, this is Shaq shooting around at the neighborhood Y. DeNiro doing Hamlet in the high school play. But for Lava Man, the Cal Cup is certainly not slumming. He has taken crafty advantage of restricted jackpots before, winning such events as the Sunshine Millions Classic and the Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita, as well as the Khaled Handicap on the Gold Rush card for Cal-breds during Hollywood Park.

Those events represented a means to an end for Lava Man. In each case, trainer Doug O'Neill and the rest of the Lava Man brain trust had a loftier goal in mind - a Santa Anita Handicap or a Whittingham Invitational - and Lava Man appreciated the break in competition.

On Saturday, however, the Cal Cup Classic stands as an end in itself. Lava Man needs to win to shake the funk of 4 losses in his last 5 starts. Still, approaching age 7 and a millionaire more than five times over, Lava Man already has left an indelible mark on the game. Despite his recent downturn in fortunes, he ranks among the most popular Thoroughbreds on the California scene over the past 25 years. If you don't think so, check the reaction after he wins.

The California Cup program offers fans a chance to appreciate another 6-year-old Cal-bred gelding who has earned his share of the spotlight. His name is Epic Power, a son of Epic Honor, and he will go postward a half-hour before Lava Man in defense of his 2006 title in the $175,000 Cal Cup Mile, run on the turf.

Epic Power will try to become the first horse to win back-to-back runnings. He is approaching this year's version, though, from a different angle. In 2006, he beat Running Free by a head off just 19 days' rest, while on Saturday, Epic Power will be appearing for the first time in more than two months. Trainer Jack Carava was asked, What gives?

"I ran him fairly hard over the summer," Carava said, "and the timing of trying to put one more race in between his last one and the Cal Cup didn't appeal to me. So we came up to this on works, and there's a little concern, since in the past he's seemed to run better when he's had a race about a month out."

Trainers and horseplayers are still trying to get a steady line on workouts over Santa Anita's newly installed Cushion Track. Interpretation is required, even with Epic Power's unbroken series of seven weekly works since his last race, which includes a bullet five-eighths in 58.40 seconds.

"Oddly enough, the work of his I liked the best was the 1:03," said Carava, referring to Epic Power's five-eighths on Oct. 17. "The track was extremely slow that day and he worked in company. The company kind of snuck up behind him and got to his hip, then he re-broke through the lane."

If nothing else, Epic Power deserved a holiday after his last race just to celebrate. That second-place finish to Cal Cup Mile opponent Jack's Wild in the Aug. 25 California Turf Championship at Bay Meadows marked the 50th start of Epic Power's career. Only one other player on the Cal Cup program has hit the half-century mark, the Sprint entrant Areyoutalkintome.

Older horses, no matter what the class level, seem to thrive in Carava's care. He is by nature cautious and conservative, running a smooth operation that thrives primarily on claiming horses, but he rarely misses a beat when a good one comes along. On the strength of client Ron Valenta, who races as La Canada Stable, Carava broke through with his first Grade 1 victory during the summer of 2006 when Pure as Gold, a $100,000 Valenta claim, won the Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar.

Epic Power was a $40,000 Valenta claim in July of 2005 out of a mile race on the grass at Hollywood Park. Six races later, the horse was taken by Doug O'Neill for $40,000, but Valenta and Carava weren't through. They claimed Epic Power for the second time, again for $40,000, out of his very next start, and he has been with them ever since, through 5 wins and 6 seconds in his last 15 tries.

Such consistency is rare at any level. Epic Power, a brownish bay with black trim, is not a real big horse, but he has a big personality.

"When we first had him he was pretty high-strung, and kind of a bleeder," Carava recalled. "He's just an old veteran now, and takes everything pretty much in stride. It's easy to tell when he's doing really good, because he gets very strong and tough to gallop, and he's been acting good that way. But he's still not a horse who puts 100 percent into his morning activities. So it's hard to be 100 percent confident you've got him tight, tight, tight."

Even so, count on Epic Power to run hard, hard, hard. He knows no other way.