04/25/2008 12:00AM

Lava Man amped up for return


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - At around 8 o'clock Friday morning, in a stall at Doug O'Neill's barn at Hollywood Park, Noe Garcia was preparing Lava Man for a routine gallop. Already, this is an unlikely scenario.

Nine months ago, Garcia was lying helplessly in his capsized van near the Del Mar exit of Interstate 5 thanks to some drunken fool who tried to run him off the road. Garcia's left arm was gone and he was bleeding profusely from the shredded stump left behind. Only heroic emergency efforts saved his life.

Nearly six months ago, two-time California horse of the year Lava Man disappeared from view, his lofty reputation tarnished by three inexplicably poor performances in races he should have won. He has not run since.

On Sunday, Lava Man and Garcia will make a dramatic return when they enter the Hollywood paddock together for the $150,000 Khaled Stakes, part of the 10-race California Gold Rush program. Both sentiment and hard logic will make Lava Man the heavy favorite in the nine-furlong turf event, but questions abound. Not even those closest to Lava Man can predict with any confidence just how their horse will run.

"I was very confident when we ran him in the Pacific Classic last summer - then, whoops," Doug O'Neill said as he followed Lava Man and exercise rider Tony Romero to the track. "After that, we kind of experimented with a turf race at a mile. But then I was very confident when he ran in the Cal Cup Classic. Whoops again."

Lava Man ran sixth, sixth, and sixth - a humbling fall from considerable heights. This was not the same horse who had won back-to-back Santa Anita Handicaps, earned more than $5 million, and equaled Native Diver's mark of three straight Hollywood Gold Cups. The Del Mar race was written off as an allergic reaction to Polytrack (he's in good company). The grass race in the Oak Tree Mile wasn't horrible, just not his style. But then in the Cal Cup, Lava Man surrendered with such a pitiful shrug that everyone figured the game was over.

And it could have been, with no hard feelings. Lava Man, the $50,000 Cinderella claim by Steve Kenly and Jason Wood, had been the West's most reliable performer for 2 1/2 years, at one point winning 9 of 10 starts. The fact that Lava Man never could reproduce a glimmer of his best form on the road was troublesome, but certainly not a deal-breaker when it came to the adoration of fans back home.

After the Cal Cup last November, Lava Man was sent to Alamo Pintado Equine Hospital, the Lourdes of West Coast clinics, where Dr. Doug Herthel and his staff found a lung infection. Along with medication, he was given treatments in the richly oxygenated atmosphere of a hyperbaric chamber to enhance healing. He was then sent to a farm for R&R.

"He went back to Alamo Pintado one more time after that, just to make sure the lungs were clean," O'Neill said. "It was the kind of thing that just wasn't showing up on bloodwork, so we didn't want to be fooled again."

While Lava Man rested, Garcia was trying to heal. Standing in front of Lava Man's stall, he gently lifted the hand of his prosthetic left arm, then reached up to rub his left shoulder.

"The shoulder still hurts sometimes," Garcia said. "The doctor said maybe 18 months before it will feel okay. But I do okay with one hand."

Better than okay. Garcia rubs Lava Man one-handed with the same vigor that always put a gleam in the gelding's sealskin brown coat. If Lava Man's coat looks a little dull to the trained eye on Sunday, it's only because he was clipped for the first time when he returned to the track in Feburary.

"We never needed to before," O'Neill said. "The way Noe rubbed him when his coat came in was like using a pair of clippers. This time, he'd been at the farm for a while, just being a horse."

It makes sense that any old campaigner needs an occasional change of scenery. Perfect Drift, still in training, spent winters at his owner's Missouri farm before returning to the wars each spring. John Henry, on the other hand, hated his brief vacation away from the track after his 1981 Horse of the Year campaign and demanded to be put back to work.

Garcia knows the feeling.

"I couldn't stay at home anymore," he said. "That was no good. I had to come back."

Still, it was hard, and not only in terms of the physical challenge. When confronted in stark terms by tasks which would no longer come easily, he suffered through an understandable depression.

"Him too, I think," said Garcia, nodding toward Lava Man. "When he came back here, he was kind of sleepy. No more, though."

In fact, Lava Man has been giving off the same intense vibes that telegraphed his best form of 2006.

"In the last month or so, he's been getting real excitable early in the morning," O'Neill said. "The night watchman really has to pay attention. He'd do that in the prime of his great runs - we'd come to the barn and he'd have a spread shoe or something - and we ended up padding his stall."

O'Neill conceded, however, that there's a chance the 7-year-old Lava Man may have reached the end.

"If he doesn't run to expectations on Sunday, then we'll certainly have to huddle up and decide what's best," the trainer said. "But nothing he's been doing lately tells me that's the case. I'm looking forward to seeing the same old competitive Lava Man."