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Handling travel is Lava Man's last hurdle
LEXINGTON, Ky. - For a horse as remarkably consistent as Lava Man, his travels out of state have been puzzling, abject failures. The California-bred gelding has raced and won on turf and dirt at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, and Fairplex, so he obviously has no trouble moving from town to town, and surface to surface. Except, it seems, when an airplane ride is involved.
Lava Man in January 2005 went to Florida for the Sunshine Millions Classic. He finished seventh of 12. Last fall, he went to New York for the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished seventh of eight. And last November, in the Japan Cup Dirt, he finished 11th of 16. He was beaten a total of 77 1/4 lengths in those races.
They are glaring blemishes on an otherwise praiseworthy resume. Lava Man was claimed for $50,000 in August 2004 by owners Steve Kenly and Jason Wood, and since then has earned more than $3.5 million, the most garnered by a horse following a claim. Ever. This year, Lava Man has won all seven of his starts, including an unprecedented single-season sweep of the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Del Mar's Pacific Classic.
His perfect season has put Lava Man in position to claim Horse of the Year and champion older horse in next Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. It will be the most important race of his career, one in which he will face fellow championship hopefuls Bernardini and Invasor.
But the uncertainly over how Lava Man will do outside California still weighs on his trainer, Doug O'Neill.
"We'd be lying if we didn't think so," O'Neill said.
So, Lava Man was sent here two weeks ago in order to have three weeks to acclimate to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. On Friday here at Keeneland, on a rainy, miserable morning, Lava Man had his final work in preparation for the Classic. He was given an official time of 1:15, breezing, for six furlongs. Daily Racing Form caught him in 1:15.56.
O'Neill brought Lava Man to Kentucky early in the belief - maybe the hope - that his previous travel debacles happened because Lava Man arrived at his destination too close to the race. In addition, the Polytrack surface here is similar to the artificial surface at Hollywood Park over which Lava Man thrived following the close of Del Mar. O'Neill also brought extra help - grooms and hotwalkers - to Kentucky, along with several other Breeders' Cup runners.
Lava Man is in a stall whose front screen is not the full length of the stall door, but rather has a U-shaped indentation over which he can look out. "He gets claustrophobic," O'Neill said. The trainer has someone at the Kentucky barn 24 hours a day to deftly dissuade well-wishers from getting Lava Man stirred up. He's too rambunctious to keep behind a simple stall webbing.
"He likes to play," O'Neill, 38, said Friday morning. "The after-play isn't fun. He's excitable. He'll start to wheel in his stall."
O'Neill is hoping all those steps will help alleviate Lava Man's travel anxiety.
"That was part of the idea of getting him here early, so that wouldn't be an excuse," O'Neill said. "We've got everything set up as though we're back in California. But there is a little bit of doubt."
There is still one more ship involved. Lava Man was scheduled to travel by van the 72 miles to Churchill Downs on Saturday morning in order to spend a week there preceding the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup.
"It's a little bit of a concern," O'Neill said. "We thought about leaving him here, but we thought having him settle in there outweighed the benefits of being on Polytrack one more week. He'll have a full week there, so that should be ample time. I've got two or three more guys here than I normally would. He'll have some horses around him he's familiar with. His drinking buddies."
O'Neill spent the morning going to and from his barn at Keeneland, working all five of his Breeders' Cup runners with his best buddy, his brother Dennis.
"Not only is he my brother, he's my best friend," O'Neill said.
Dennis O'Neill, 43, buys horses privately for Doug and, because he is a terrific handicapper, acts as a sounding board on placing horses and race strategy. Earlier this year, Dennis was stricken with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a diagnosis that sent shudders through the family, since the O'Neills had an older brother, Danny, who died of cancer nine years ago at age 38. They have another older brother, Dave, 49, who lives in Hawaii.
Dennis underwent chemotherapy this spring, and lost 10 pounds from his naturally thin, 140-pound frame. What he didn't lose was his sense of humor. "I lost my hair, but nobody knew that," Dennis said.
"I had some tests done at USC three weeks ago, and everything was good," he said. "If I get through another year like that, I'll have less chance of it coming back than you do."
For the O'Neills, the racetrack is now and always has been a refuge.
"We've always been really close because the other brothers were a lot older," Dennis said. "We started going to the track with my dad when we were growing up in Detroit."
The O'Neills' parents split. Dennis and Doug lived with their mother in Inkster, Mich.
"We didn't have a lot of money growing up, to say the least," Dennis said. "My mom wanted us to go to Catholic school, but the only way we could afford it was to live in the ghetto."
Their parents reconciled, and the boys moved with their mom to California, where their father had relocated. Dennis was now old enough to drive, and Hollywood Park was not far from their home.
"I used to pop Doug out of school and go," Dennis said.
Their passion for racing as fans eventually led them to turn it into a profession. Even if Lava Man doesn't like to travel, horses like him have taken the O'Neill brothers places they never thought they would go. In less than a week, they will run Lava Man in the Classic, Great Hunter in the Juvenile, Sharp Lisa in the Distaff, and Thor's Echo and possibly Areyoutalkintome in the Sprint.
"I'm glad that's over with," Dennis said after all five worked at Keeneland on Friday morning. "It's been a stressful last couple of days. I wish now you could put them in bubble wrap for a week. It's a lot different than running a 50-1 shot. We've got a couple who've got a chance."