03/08/2007 12:00AM

Has Lava Man lost a step from 2006?


ARCADIA, Calif. - Every horseplayer has opinions. Some turn out right, some turn out wrong. Isn't that the fun of it? So here goes . . .

* Lava Man gets too much respect from bettors. His workmanlike victory in the Santa Anita Handicap was his seventh straight at even-money or less. Spin it how you want, but the 2007 version of Lava Man is less dominant than 2006, and his 109 Big Cap Beyer Figure was better than the visual impression. Meanwhile, Lava Man keeps racking up W's.

* Speaking of millionaire California-bred geldings, 12-year-old Full Moon Madness is back in training at Bay Meadows, where he worked a bullet five furlongs Tuesday. Full Moon Madness is nearing the 10th anniversary of his career debut on June 25, 1997. He ranks 27th on the earnings list for Cal-breds. He has earned $1,246,748 by winning 18 races from 69 starts.

* The better that Liquidity runs Saturday in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, the better Ravel will look. Ravel beat Liquidity on Feb. 3 at Santa Anita, and a solid effort by Liquidity would lower the Santa Anita Derby odds on Ravel. That would be good news for bet-against skeptics who believe Ravel's reputation exceeds his deeds.

* In the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Jr. Memorial Saturday at Fair Grounds, traditional "class on grass" handicapping suggests Macduff is in tough. But anyone who saw Macduff unleash an electrifying late burst to win a third-level allowance on Feb. 10 at Santa Anita will be tempted to back Macduff in the stakes. Trainer Neil Drysdale does not make such aggressive class moves without reason. Macduff might be a serious horse. If so, he will show it Saturday.

* If Rags to Riches wins the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks on Saturday, will her connections consider the Kentucky Derby? One Southern California horseplayer hopes they do. After Rags to Riches overcame a wide trip and won the Las Virgenes, the bettor wagered on Rags to Riches to win the Derby. The Las Vegas odds were insane: 150-1.

* Coincidence? The 2007 Handicapping Expo in Las Vegas included a session on "Super Trainers." The session was held Saturday, the same day Todd Pletcher won five races (three stakes) at Gulfstream Park and Doug O'Neill won four (two stakes) at Santa Anita.

* El Camino Real Derby entrant Court the King was a first-time gelding in an impressive Feb. 2 win at Santa Anita. It makes a difference. Tim Osterman of Today's Racing Digest tracked the first-time gelding angle in a recent column chronicling 36 first-time geldings at Santa Anita (through early February). Eight won (22 percent), and five paid 10-1 or higher. A $2 win bet produced a $4.88 return on investment ($72 wagered, $176 returned).

* Remember the 8-year-old gelding Easy Grades? Runner-up in the 2002 Santa Anita Derby, he finished 13th in the Kentucky Derby, and is one of four 2002 Derby starters still racing. The others are Perfect Drift (third), Request for Parole (fifth) and Lusty Latin (15th).

Easy Grades returns to the spotlight Saturday in race 9 at Laurel, which is the first leg of the Magna 5 with a carryover of $377,190. Easy Grades is dropping from a stakes to a second-level optional $25,000 claimer at nine furlongs, and might have have been a single if he had drawn a better post. Easy Grades drew post 10 however, so the race is a spread. Four other contenders include Casey, Ed Gray Sports, Art Major and Sir Rahy. Posts 1-3 have dominated nine-furlong races this year at Laurel, a combined 26 for 44.

* The second round of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool has opened, and my, how quickly things change. Ten of the 23 original Derby colts already have been replaced, and there are nine new names in the Oaks. Churchill Downs may someday modernize the wager by including more than 23. Until then, Future Wager strategy boils down to one of two choices - either back the all-others field (No. 24), or not bet at all.

* There is nothing quite like positive publicity to slow down a hot trainer. In the three weeks since a bubbly profile on trainer Carla Gaines was published in Daily Racing Form's Simulcast Weekly, Gaines is 0 for 12, including 10 that finished off the board.

* The best longshot jockey of the Santa Anita winter meet, Jorge Chavez, took a tumble Thursday morning. Chavez took off his mounts Thursday after injuring his left knee when a horse flipped on him. X-rays revealed no broken bones, but doctors advised him to take the day off. Chavez, seventh in the standings, has produced a $3.84 return on investment this meet winning 19 races.

* The Orange County Register in California is the latest major daily newspaper to slice racing coverage. Early this week, the Register eliminated the consensus box and the graded handicap by veteran turf writer Jerry Antonucci. The move follows a similar cutback by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

* West Coast racing fans will have to get up awfully early to watch Dixie Meister win the Godolphin Mile on March 31 in Dubai. Post time for that $1 million race is 6:40 a.m. Pacific. Based on Dixie Meister's brilliant recent works at Santa Anita, the San Pasqual winner should be right at home in a one-turn mile at Nad Al Sheba.

* River Savage may be outclassed Saturday in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap, but she is better than her sixth-place finish last month in the Grade 1 Santa Maria. She broke awkwardly, was shuffled back, and that was that. Breaking from post 6 Saturday, the pace-pressing mare cannot be overlooked at a price against Balance and Ermine.