06/26/2008 12:00AM

Heatseeker tries to fill Lava Man's shoes


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Nature abhors a vacuum. When a dynasty falls, chaos reigns. The Romans, the Spanish, the Yankees - look what happened when their empires crumbled, when warring factions swept in to fight over the pieces.

So it goes in horse racing. From 1960 through 1964, Kelso ruled as perennial Horse of the Year. When he finally stepped aside, there was no horse ready to fill the void, certainly nothing in Kelso's class, and the year-end honors revealed confusion in the land. Depending on which group held the floor, the 1965 Horse of the Year was either the 2-year-old colt Buckpasser, the 2-year-old filly Mocassin, or the 4-year-old gelding Roman Brother - Kelso lite - who won just 5 of 14 starts.

California racing experienced its own diaspora of leaderless wandering in the wake of the Native Diver era. For three solid seasons, 1965-67, The Diver was the dominant personality on the Hollywood Park scene, winning seven major stakes, including three runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup. By 1968 he was gone, a victim of colic, and his absence was felt at the highest levels of the handicap scene. In fact, the older horses who gathered for the 1968 running of the Hollywood Gold Cup were so uninspiring that an entry of two mares went favored, at odds-on. Oh, the humiliation.

Their names were Gamely and Princessnesian.

"Princessnesian was a great mare," said Don Pierce, who should know, since he rode her to victory not only in that version of the Gold Cup, but the 1969 Santa Margarita as well.

Gamely wasn't hard to take, either. She was Bold Ruler's most famous daughter, a champion and eventually a Hall of Famer. In the 1968 Santa Margarita, Gamely defeated Princessnesian by a nose and should have come down, but because they both were owned by William Haggin Perry and trained by Jim Maloney, stewards let the result stand. In their race prior to the Gold Cup, Gamely defeated the onrushing Princessnesian by three-quarters of a length in the nine-furlong Vanity Handicap.

"Gamely was a big, stud-looking mare," Pierce noted. "Princessnesian was not small, but she was feminine. Up to a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, Princessnesian was second best to Gamely. But after that, I liked Princessnesian.

"In that Gold Cup, I was way back early," Pierce went on. "She started moving with me around the turn, and she was lugging in real bad. I was down on the inside and it was the only place I had to go. I couldn't get her off the rail. I wound up getting through at the eighth pole, and she got up and won by about a neck. She made me look like a hero, but I would have gone around if I could have."

Forty years later, the Gold Cup is faced with another watershed moment. Saturday's 69th version of the 1 1/4-mile event will be the first running in three years that will not be won by Lava Man. He's fine - don't worry - but it's more likely he will be seen in middle-distance turf races from now on, rather than the 10-furlong dirt track events he used to collect in his prime.

The Gold Cup field that has assembled in Lava Man's absence lacks a national star. But they are a consistent bunch, many of them upwardly mobile, including Heatseeker, Tiago, Go Between, Big Booster, and Student Council. Stir in the veteran Perfect Drift, and it is guaranteed the race will not be cheaply won.

Niall O'Callaghan, now the trainer A.P. Xcellent in Kentucky, paid this group a compliment by staying home, despite the fact that his horse is in very good form and was nominated. While trained by John Shirreffs, A.P. Xcellent lost the 2007 Gold Cup to Lava Man by a nose.

"In my view, the field is very deep this year," O'Callaghan said. "I'm a believer in the Ragozin sheets, and Lava Man was winning some of his races with 4s and 5s. Heatseeker and some of the others in there have been running measureably better. So I figured, why go looking for trouble right now."

Heatseeker is definitely trouble. No horse in the division south of the very scary Curlin has been on a better roll this season. True, Heatseeker has won only 2 of 5 starts, including the Santa Anita Handicap over several of his Gold Cup opponents. But two of his losses were by heads and the other was a decent third at 1 1/16 miles, a distance he usually leaves to lesser animals.

Coming off a smasher in the nine-furlong Californian, Heatseeker seems primed and targeted to make a mark in history. Since the opening of Hollywood Park in 1938, only six horses have won the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup in the same season - Kayak II, Noor, Ack Ack, Crystal Water, Affirmed, and Lava Man, who nailed both events in 2006 and 2007.

Heatseeker has yet to threaten a horse like Lava Man in terms of public popularity. In addition, he still needs a victory outside of California to cement his national credentials as a truly top competitor. Still, a victory by Heatseeker on Saturday would be a step in the right direction. At the very least, it might help to ease any withdrawal pains from the Gold Cup era of Lava Man.