07/05/2006 11:00PM

Lava Man going for a refill

Lava Man, with Tony Romero up, gallops Thursday at Hollywood for his Gold Cup defense.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Lava Man has already secured a place in racing history. Not many $50,000 claimers go on to win multiple Grade 1 stakes and more than $2.3 million.

Last year, in his rise to the top of the California handicap division, Lava Man gave his best performance in the $750,000 , which he won by a record 8 3/4 lengths.

Lava Man is back in the same race on Saturday, on the verge of further milestones. Lava Man can become the first horse to win consecutive runnings of the Gold Cup since Native Diver, who won Hollywood Park's signature race three consecutive times from 1965-67. In addition, a win on Saturday would make Lava Man the first horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup in the same year since Affirmed in 1979.

Not bad for a horse who was considered a prospect for turf claimers when he was claimed in the summer of 2004.

"We're expecting a huge effort," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "Last year, we were caught off guard by his performance."

The Gold Cup is the feature race on an 11-race program, which begins at noon. The program includes the $350,000 Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds, which is the third race.

Lava Man will be a short-priced favorite in the Grade 1 Gold Cup, run at 1 1/4 miles on dirt. Owned by STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood, Lava Man will carry top weight of 124 pounds and drew the rail in the Gold Cup. He spots his four rivals six to 11 pounds.

In post position order, Lava Man will face Magnum, the winner of the Lone Star Park Handicap in Texas on May 29; Seek Gold, the upset winner of the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 17; Ace Blue, who was stakes-placed in northern California earlier this year; and Super Frolic, who was second in the Californian Stakes on June 17.

Aside from Lava Man, Seek Gold is the only other 2006 Grade 1 winner in the field. A 6-year-old gelding, Seek Gold is trained at Churchill Downs by Ron Moquett.

The rail draw for Lava Man is likely to force jockey Corey Nakatani to use the 5-year-old early to avoid traffic problems on the first turn. Fortunately for his connections, Lava Man is a front-runner and should jump into the race on his own.

"With Lava Man, Nakatani knows him so well," O'Neill said. "Things have fallen into place. He has a great style and can dictate what happens."

Lava Man has used that near-the-front style to win all four of his starts this year, including wins in the Sunshine Millions Classic, Big Cap, Khaled Stakes, and Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap on turf on June 10. The Whittingham was his first graded stakes win on turf. He led throughout.

"He's been unbelievably consistent," O'Neill said.

Of Lava Man's four rivals, Magnum should receive the most support. Trained by Darrell Vienna for Bill and Donna Herrick Racing. Magnum has come closest to beating Lava Man this year when he finished second by three-quarters of a length in the Santa Anita Handicap. No other horse has gotten within two lengths.

Since the Santa Anita Handicap, Magnum has finished second in the Oaklawn Handicap in April and rebounded to win the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on May 29. Magnum will be ridden by Patrick Valenzuela, the regular rider of Lava Man last year.

"I fear P. Val," O'Neill said. "Patrick knows the horse so well and he's such a good rider. Magnum is a good horse and he knows our horse."

Magnum is not a front-runner. He is more likely to be rated just behind the leaders. A 5-year-old, Magnum has been effective at 1 1/4 miles, winning an optional claiming race at the distance at Golden Gate Fields last November and finishing second in a Group 2 stakes in Argentina in 2004.

"We're not committed to any particular style," Vienna said. "His performance is not contingent on any kind of setup. He's a versatile horse."

The field

Hollywood Gold Cup
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1Lava ManC. Nakatani1241-2
2MagnumP. Valenzuela1185-2
3Seek GoldC. Borel11710-1
4Ace BlueV. Espinoza11312-1
5Super FrolicJ. Court1168-1

* Blinkers on: Ace Blue
* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Saturday, 7-8 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN