06/07/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man back on his home turf


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Another failed road trip, this time to Dubai in March, has left Lava Man with an air of vulnerability when he starts in Saturday's $300,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park.

The Grade 1 Whittingham at 1 1/4 miles on turf has drawn a solid field of eight. Lava Man must beat the improving After Market, who won the Grade 3 Inglewood Handicap here in April; Obrigado, who won the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on turf at Santa Anita in February, but was well-beaten in Dubai; and the speedy Lang Field, who is making his stakes debut.

Lava Man is the defending champion in the Whittingham and carries top weight of 124 pounds. Owned by Jason Wood and the Kenly family's STD Racing and trained by Doug O'Neill, Lava Man is seeking his 10th consecutive win in Southern California, a streak that includes five Grade 1 races.

There is concern in the Lava Man camp about the 6-year-old gelding's chances in the Whittingham following a 16th-place finish in the Dubai Duty Free on March 31.

"As he gets older, the only fear toward bad results are whether they take a toll on him," O'Neill said. "I know for Steve [Kenly], Jason, and I, if he never did anything again, we'd still feel like the most blessed guys in the business. For Joe Handicapper, there are a lot of questions.

"He's training great. I think he's back to where he was when we took him to Dubai."

Lava Man has won more than $4.6 million and 12 stakes, but is winless in five major stakes outside of California.

But two of those losses have been followed by stakes wins upon his return to the state.

Lava Man won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic for California-breds and Florida-breds at Santa Anita in January 2006 two months after finishing 11th in the Japan Cup Dirt in Tokyo. After Lava Man finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last November, he rebounded to win the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita in January.

In the 2006 Whittingham, Lava Man led throughout and won by two lengths. He is highly unlikely to lead this year, which could help his chances.

Lang Field, the winner of three consecutive allowance races going 1 1/8 miles on turf since mid-March, is quick, but has never run 1 1/4 miles on turf. Trained by Art Sherman for Nigel Shields, he is in the best form of his career.

"He's never hooked these kind of horses, but we have to try it sometime," Sherman said. "We might as well go for $300,000."

Lang Field could face pressure from Valiant Effort. An allowance-class runner, Valiant Effort is owned by Marty and Pam Wygod, who also own After Market. A quick pace set by Lang Field and Valiant Effort would help Lava Man and closers such as After Market.

A 4-year-old, After Market is untested at 1 1/4 miles, too. Trained by John Shirreffs, After Market won his third stakes in the Inglewood at 1 1/16 miles on turf, drawing off in the final furlong to win by two lengths. The Whittingham will be After Market's first start in a Grade 1.

Trainer Neil Drysdale has two starters - Obrigado and Red Fort. Obrigado was 13th in the Dubai Sheema Classic, a performance that ended a streak of top-three finishes in stakes. Red Fort, second to After Market in the Inglewood, was second in the 2005 Whittingham and third in last year's running.