07/24/2015 2:28PM

Hall of Fame: Lava Man has 'leader's mentality'

Barbara D. Livingston
Hall of Fame inductee Lava Man, right, ponying dual classic winner I'll Have Another in 2012.

There are no days off for Lava Man, the 2015 Hall of Fame inductee.

At the age of 14, Lava Man thrives on activity. He is a pony for longtime trainer Doug O’Neill at Los Alamitos, guiding the stable’s young horses to and from the track.

“He wakes up every morning with a purpose,” O’Neill said on a recent morning at Del Mar. “He’s got such a leader’s mentality.”

Lava Man showed the way on the racetrack, too. From September 2004, when he won the Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex Park in his first start after being claimed for $50,000, to the end of his career in December 2009, Lava Man made 34 starts, and won 14 races, including 13 stakes.

Lava Man won seven Grade 1 races, ending his career with earnings of $5,268,706. He earned $5,170,103 for owners Steve, Tracy, and David Kenly and Jason Wood after they claimed him.

“Who would have thought that when he was a 3-year-old?” Steve Kenly said.

By the end of 2004, Lava Man had career earnings of $260,603. In 2005, he won the first of three consecutive runnings of the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. He was the second horse to win the Gold Cups after Native Diver did it from 1965-67.

By the time Lava Man won the Gold Cup for the second time in the summer of 2006, he was in the midst of his best season, having already won four stakes, including the first of consecutive runnings of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.

That summer, Lava Man won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, one of the finest performances of his career. “That was goose bumps,” O’Neill said.

After a commanding win in the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Santa Anita in September 2006, Lava Man was 6-1 to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November. He ran seventh of 13, fading from contention in the stretch to finish 15 3/4 lengths behind eventual Horse of the Year Invasor.

“He was all in,” Kenly said. “It didn’t work out.”

Lava Man was a 6-year-old in 2007, the year he earned $1,410,000 and won 3 of 8 starts in a season highlighted by victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. That was the year of his second and final international trip, a last-place finish of 16 in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free in the United Arab Emirates. Lava Man was 11th of 16 in the $2,115,916 Japan Cup Dirt in November 2005.

Lava Man was winless in his five starts outside of California, which made his induction to the Hall of Fame even more of a surprise for Steve Kenly.

“I didn’t think he’d get in the Hall of Fame,” Kenly said. “He never did much outside of California. What an honor.”

Lava Man was retired after a series of losses in the summer of 2008, and was sent to Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, Calif. Within a year, he was back at the track and in training. Despite criticism that Lava Man had done enough, he made one additional start, finishing last of seven in the Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita in December 2009.

A month later, he was retired for good. This time, Lava Man stayed at the track.

Lava Man’s connections considered sending him to an equine retirement home. But they believed that Lava Man would be happier at the track.

“I thought he was too active, too young, and too full of energy,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill credits stable employees Savas Rivera, Noe Garcia, and Tony Romero for their work with retraining the gelding.

“He’s great with the young horses and happy as he can be,” O’Neill said. “Savas spent a lot of time breaking him. [Lava Man] seems to be getting the pony thing down. He’s been a great asset for the team, taking the babies to and from the track.”

For the Kenly family, the trip to Lava Man’s induction will be their first to the historic racing town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “We have no idea what to expect,” Steve Kenly said.

Kenly admits he needs to get his speech ready. But where does he start? It’s hard to pick a favorite race, or even a favorite year.

“I better get started on it,” he said. “He was one of a kind.”