06/07/2006 11:00PM

Lava Man faces new challenge

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Lava Man has won five stakes.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Six weeks after he overwhelmed fellow California-breds in the Khaled Stakes on turf and four weeks before he is scheduled to defend his title in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Lava Man will attempt a career first in Saturday's $300,000 at Hollywood Park.

The multi-millionaire Lava Man is trying to win his first Grade 1 on turf.

Lava Man has won five stakes since he was claimed for $50,000 in August 2004, including victories in two Grade 1 dirt races, the Gold Cup last summer and the Santa Anita Handicap in March.

Trainer Doug O'Neill and owners Jason Wood and Steve and Dave Kenly thought Lava Man would develop into a solid turf claimer when they bought him nearly two years ago. He's much more than that. Saturday, Lava Man has a chance to prove his ability at the highest level on turf in the 1 1/4-mile Whittingham.

Lava Man faces a stern test. The top contenders include King's Drama, the winner of the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita in March; T.H. Approval, who won the San Juan Capistrano Handicap for the second consecutive year in April; and Red Fort, who was a game second in this race last year.

O'Neill is concerned that turf races are run differently than dirt races. Lava Man races near the front, and most of his opponents are capable of putting in a very fast final furlong on grass.

"His final times are as good as those horses," O'Neill said. "Time doesn't tell you everything. It's a different ballgame. They've been in serious races where they've flown home.

"We'll need to get a head start. We need to take advantage of his tactical speed."

Defending champion Sweet Return is an outsider this year. Trained by Ron McAnally, Sweet Return is winless in four starts since the 2005 Whittingham. He finished sixth in the Grade 2 San Francisco Breeders' Cup Mile at Golden Gate Fields on April 29 in his most recent start. In that turf race, he led to early stretch before fading.

"He had to be used too much in the first part," McAnally said.

Sweet Return is proven at 1 1/4 miles. Aside from the 2005 Whittingham, he won the 2003 Hollywood Derby and 2004 San Marcos Stakes at that distance. Still, McAnally is taking a cautious approach.

"This will be tough," he said. "The winner of the San Juan Capistrano and the winner of the Big Cap are in there. It's not an easy race."

The 1 1/4-mile distance will suit many of the runners. In a way, it may be too short for T.H. Approval or Runaway Dancer, who are proven at 1 1/2 miles or farther. Runaway Dancer won the 2005 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at 1 1/2 miles, but is winless in his last six starts.

T.H. Approval is a genuine marathoner who has not started since winning the San Juan Capistrano at about 1 3/4 miles on turf. Trained by Eduardo Inda, T.H. Approval is a closer who will be helped by a quick pace.

"With speed in the race, he might finish very good," Inda said. "We can't let him drop too far back."

The field

Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap
Purse: $300,000; 1 1/4 miles, turf; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1Runaway DancerJ. Valdivia Jr.11420-1
2Sweet ReturnJ. Court11712-1
3Red FortD. Flores1183-1
4T. H. ApprovalM. Pedroza1186-1
5King's DramaP. Valenzuela1224-1
6Artiste RoyalA. Gryder11615-1
7Brecon BeaconT. Baze11515-1
8Lava ManC. Nakatani1227-5
9MolengaoD. Cohen114 30-1

* Odds by Mike Hammersly