10/05/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man forced to adapt

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - The Lava Man saga reaches a crossroads on Sunday, when the Cinderella gelding takes his first steps along a path significantly different from the one he has traveled these last three remarkable years.

The old Lava Man - the three-time Hollywood Gold Cup and two-time Santa Anita Handicap version - would have been hip-deep in the thick of last Saturday's $500,000 Goodwood, mixing it up with horses intent on making it to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

But instead of prepping for another 1 1/4-mile adventure at the top of the game, Lava Man is running on the grass in the Oak Tree Mile, for a purse of $250,000, which is little more than chump change for a competitor who has won $5.2 million during his 41-race career.

The Oak Tree Mile is serving as a springboard for Lava Man to either the BC Mile on Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park, against the best Europe has to offer, or the inaugural running of the $1 million BC Dirt Mile, part of the BC Lite program of Oct. 26.

In one sense, the choice represents a shrewd managerial move on the part of trainer Doug O'Neill and Lava Man's owners, Steve Kenly and Jason Wood. It is also a reluctant concession to the fact that Lava Man's world has changed, through no fault of his own.

These are strange, transitional times for all of California racing. The synthetic era has arrived, and as the various mixtures of sand, rubber, fiber, and wax continue to settle, it remains to be seen which horses rise to the top of the heap.

"One of his main assets that enabled him to be so successful for so long was that he could run you off your feet," O'Neill said Friday from Keeneland, where his filly Grace Anatomy finished third in the Alcibiades Stakes.

"If you tried to keep up with him you'd be done by mid-race, and he could still kick on," O'Neill went on. "That's the way those conventional dirt tracks tend to play. Now, as we've seen with synthetic tracks, the horse with the speed edge, they take that away a little. And that little bit might be just enough to knock Lava Man off as the king, at least at this time."

For Lava Man the writing was on the wall last summer when he won his third straight Hollywood Gold Cup by just a nose over a horse, A.P. Xcellent, who even now is without a stakes win. The spread in the handicap was eight pounds, but is was more likely that the new Cushion Track surface brought them together at the wire, not the handicapper.

"Del Mar was like nothing we'd ever seen before," O'Neill said, referring to a Polytrack surface over which Lava Man was beaten seven lengths in 2:07 for the 1 1/4 miles of the Pacific Classic. Santa Anita, which also has Cushion Track, "looks more dirt-like than a lot of the synthetics. So we're still trying to digest all the information.

"At the same time, as representatives of Lava Man, Steve, Jason and I don't want it to look like we're scared of horses like Tiago or Awesome Gem," added O'Neill, referring to the one-two finishers in the Goodwood. "We know on firm turf or dirt, Lava Man will still be very competitive."

If they opt for the BC Mile, Team Lava Man will be throwing their horse into what is traditionally the biggest crapshoot this side of Atlantic City. The idea of 14 horses crammed full-speed into a seven-furlong course is as ridiculous today as it was in 1984, and only one American horse with Lava Man's style of running ever mastered the Mile. His name was Lure.

The better option is the BC Dirt Mile, which is really a mile and 70 yards (don't ask) and should be right up Lava Man's alley. The bad news is that the alley is located 2,500 miles from Lava Man's Hollywood Park stall. And as every schoolchild knows, Lava Man travels about as well as yesterday's sushi. Still, the Monmouth version of the BC Dirt Mile+70 should offer the best chance yet for Lava Man to strut his stuff on the road, since Monmouth can be a quick, tight surface, with overtones of the old West Coast main tracks.

Now a robust and healthy 6, Lava Man has been a throwback kind of Thoroughbred, able to stand the gaff of steady training over the many varieties of conventional California main tracks. It is only slightly ironic that, according to O'Neill and his assistant, Leandro Mora, synthetic surfaces probably will help extend Lava Man's career, while at the same time compromising his chances to win the big ones at longer distances.

At least for now, though, let's look at the glass as half full. If Lava Man can be retooled to become the consistent performer at eight to nine furlongs that he used to be at 10, while switching occasionally to turf, his fans could be in for an entertaining two or three more years. The money may not be quite as good, but what else is a tough old soldier supposed to do?