03/01/2007 1:00AM

Foot, don't fail him now


ARCADIA, Calif. - It took 44 runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap for a horse to win it twice, which is a testament not only to the quality of the horse who did it, but also to the difficulty of the task.

John Henry's second victory in the 1982 running of the race was made possible, in part, by just enough interference from Perrault to prompt action from the stewards. Perrault's nose was all that separated them at the end, and his disqualification triggered an unusual visit to the stewards stand by his owners, the French baron Thierry van Zuylen and the Swiss gem dealer Serge Fradkoff.

"Normally, we'd be out the door," said Pete Pedersen, senior steward at the time, now retired. "But they had a plane to catch, and they were entitled to see what caused us to make our ruling. They were pretty good about it, too. I always said that they didn't dispute our decision, just our antecedents."

Milwaukee Brew, winner of Santa Anita Handicaps in 2002 and 2003, was the ultimate house horse. Not only was he owned by Frank Stronach, who bought the track in 1998, he was out of a mare named Ask Anita. In a career of 24 starts, Milwaukee Brew won only one other race of significance as an older horse, in addition to the Ohio Derby. This made him pretty much racing's answer to pro golfer Andy North, who won all of three major tournaments in his 18-year career. Two of them were the U.S. Open.

Standing on the threshold of his second straight victory in the Handicap, Lava Man hovers in the historical atmosphere somewhere apart from both John Henry and Milwaukee Brew. In terms of consistency, Lava Man's record of 10 wins in his last 14 starts certainly puts Milwaukee Brew to shame. Even so, Lava Man still has a long way to go before he enjoys the nationwide popularity of John Henry. Winning someplace other than Southern California would help.

For now, though, it's home cooking. The defending Santa Anita Handicap champ spent the week leading up to Saturday's 70th running of the race in routine preparation at the Hollywood Park division of his trainer, Doug O'Neill. Lava Man is one of 50 horses residing in Barn 63 North, living in a well-padded, straw-bedded stall 59, right next door to the promising 3-year-old Great Hunter.

On a quiet Tuesday morning, O'Neill's crew got Lava Man out for exercise around 7:45. Tony Romero took the big horse for a jog and gallop over Hollywood's synthetic surface, then stretched his arms and flexed his fingers as they left the track.

"He gets me tired," Romero confessed, all smiles.

For the past year and a half, Lava Man has been wearing out waves of California competition. Saturday's field in the $1 million Handicap represents a whole new batch. Of his eight opponents, only San Antonio Handicap winner Molengao and Sunshine Millions Classic winner McCann's Mojave have faced Lava Man before, although neither one had a very good view at the end of their encounters.

If there is a secret to Lava Man's success, it is his soundness. In his case, the only worries have stemmed from his feet, or more precisely his front left foot, which suffered a serious abrasion to the softer underside (frog) during the running of the 2005 Japan Cup Dirt. Since then, Lava Man's front feet have been job 1 for farrier Jim Jimenez around the O'Neill barn.

Great horsemen through the years, from the era of Preston Burch to modern day, have clung to the axiom, "No foot, no horse." Jimenez, the son of former trainer James Jimenez, is among the growing number of farriers who ascribe to the philosophy that each foot needs to be individually balanced rather than artificially shaped.

"Lava Man's left front is three degrees lower than his right front," Jimenez said, referring to the angle of the natural foot to the ground. "That's why the left front is the one that burned when he ran in Japan and the other didn't.

"These horses are either born that way or they matured that way," Jimenez added, while Lava Man cooled out in front of him. "You've got to leave them alone. What God gave him, he's going to run with. The idea is to balance each foot and walk away."

Lava Man's injured foot required corrective shoeing in front for more than a year. Then, about two months ago, Jimenez and O'Neill eliminated the bar shoes, lifts, and shims that helped protect the damaged frog as it healed and toughened.

"What we were doing to help the frog might not have been benefiting the inside heel," Jimenez said. "But $3 million later, it wasn't all that bad. Now, if we can get him to stay in conventional shoes with pads, that would be great. He seems to be doing pretty well that way. The heels were kind of angry for a while, but they're looking much better."

O'Neill's reaction was tinged with relief.

"We dodged a bullet," O'Neill said. "We're lucky we've got a guy like Jimmy, who is that knowledgeable and that passionate about every individual horse."

Especially when one of them is Lava Man.