07/20/2008 11:00PM

Father Time taps Lava Man


DEL MAR, Calif. - Sunday was a hard day for the hopelessly romantic. First, there was Greg Norman at the British Open, fading away at the age of 53 in the face of high winds and the younger Irish legs of Padraig Harrington. Then, in the afternoon, there was yet another loss by 7-year-old Lava Man, who ran as hard as he could and still finished last of six in the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar.

Geez, can't a fairy tale get an even break?

There was a brief temptation to lavish sympathy upon Norman, at least until the camera sucked in tight to eavesdrop on the anguish of his new bride Chris Evert, wearing thousand dollar Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and a rock on her ring finger the size of a Titleist. ESPN essayist Rick Reilly later put the issue in assuring perspective by pointing out that Norman could console himself with his "two jets, his two yachts, and his $500 million in net worth."

Neither will Lava Man's life be any different because of his quiet fold in the final furlong of the Read. The hay and grain will continue to be of high quality, and he will be coddled like a privileged pasha. Career earnings of $5.2 million will do that for you, especially when there are still glimpses of the old fire.

In fact, until they hit the stretch in the Read, Lava Man was cruising along just fine, content to track Storm Military's pace while awaiting further instructions from Tyler Baze. But then the serious part of the race began, and Lava Man was quickly swamped by a whole herd of younger legs belonging primarily to Monzante, Whatsthescript, and Spring House. He couldn't even catch Storm Military.

"We've got to face the fact that he was just outrun," said Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill.

At this point, it is difficult to picture the kind of quality race Lava Man could win. He had his best shot on a lonesome lead going 10 furlongs on firm ground in the Whittingham Memorial at Hollywood Park in early June and finished third, beaten a neck at the line. As for the Read, it looked like a race he might win. Lava Man simply wasn't there.

Racing shares the same ruthless ethic as every other sport. The winners don't need to explain a thing, while the losers have stories to tell. Lava Man has run out of stories. Baze, riding him for only the second time, knows this is not the same Lava Man he tried to beat many times before.

"They just might be a little too tough for him right now," the rider said.

So what to do? Wait around until the competition thins? If Lava Man is going to be a nine- and 10-furlong grass horse, it will be a long wait. That particular division in California is traditionally tough. Lava Man can't seem to take his game out of town, so that's not an option. A return to the main track has been thwarted by his apparent distaste for synthetics. He has become a horse without a country.

Many of the great geldings of the past had the courtesy to make the decision of retirement easy. Kelso, Forego, John Henry - they all had just enough wrong physically to allow for a graceful exit without disaster.

Lava Man, though, still looked the part on Sunday and acted as if he wanted to be a racehorse. He strutted into the Del Mar walking ring like he owned the place, sealskin coat gleaming and mane stylishly curled. But the facts on the ground are harsh - Lava Man has lost six straight and eight of his last nine, with his only win in that stretch a desperate nose. The best memories of Lava Man are cherished - three Hollywood Gold Cups, two Santa Anita handicaps and a Pacific Classic - but they have been fading badly with each passing loss.

In such situations, the responsibility of his keepers is even greater. They must make the hard decision in the face of mixed messages. Owners are blasted for retiring vibrant, star-quality 3-year-olds to the breeding shed when they could continue to grace the game. Owners are then blasted at the other end of the scale when they are blessed with a profitable gelding and don't know when to quit.

In the wake of the Read, Steve Kenly and Jason Wood, the men behind Lava Man, were pondering just how to deal with the idea of retiring their once-in-a-lifetime racehorse. If it helps, they can take their cue from John Mabee, breeder and owner of the storybook gelding Best Pal. After winning $5.6 million and 13 major stakes, one poor effort by Best Pal at the age of 8 was all it took for Mabee to bring him home.

"Maybe turn him out for six months and bring him back as the stable pony," O'Neill suggested. "It would be so cool just to have him around."

It has been very cool having him around. But now it's time to go, and in doing the right thing by Lava Man, his people would set themselves apart by retiring a sound, healthy Thoroughbred who was fully tested and never lied. In the end, Lava Man could beat the clock - it was the calendar that got him.