08/18/2007 11:00PM

Lava Man has a different challenge

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Lava Man gallops over the Polytrack at Del Mar recently in preparation for the Pacific Classic.

DEL MAR, Calif. - In any other year, multi-millionaire Lava Man would be the brightest star in the richest race of the California summer. Not in 2007.

The $1 million Pacific Classic will be run Sunday at Del Mar under conditions unlike any in its 17-year history - dirt is out, and Polytrack is in. The new, slower racetrack has radically altered the complexion of racing, and it will be the center of attention during the Pacific Classic. This summer, the handicapping relevance of track surface is as vital as the ability of the horses.

If Lava Man has met his match, it could be the new surface at the same track where he won the 2006 Pacific Classic on dirt. Speed is an attribute on conventional dirt tracks, but often a Polytrack liability. Lava Man's jockey Corey Nakatani will have to slow it down.

"I'm hoping somebody wants the lead other than us," said Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill. "But if nobody wants it, and we're crawling early, they're going to have us to catch."

Lava Man may have no choice. The only other front-runner is A.P. Xcellent, but he is not a confirmed starter. Trainer John Shirreffs said a decision whether to scratch A.P. Xcellent or possibly Tiago would be made on race day.

The known facts are 13 entered the Grade 1, 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic. Lava Man aside, the field is modest. Big Booster and Sun Boat were claiming horses in spring, but class is fluid in the California handicap division. Either can win Sunday. Big Booster ran third in the Hollywood Gold Cup; Sun Boat won the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap.

Mike Mitchell trains both those geldings.

"It's fair to say that the Gold Cup and Pacific Classic are not as tough this year," he said. "I'm not taking anything away from Lava Man - he's an absolute warrior - but these races used to be full of some really, really good horses."

This year, the impact of the Pacific Classic and Gold Cup on the national scene may be minimal, even though the Pacific Classic and two Grade 2's Sunday - the seven-furlong Pat O'Brien Handicap and Del Mar Mile Handicap on turf - are part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge. The winner of the Pacific Classic earns a berth in the BC Classic, the winner of the O'Brien in the BC Sprint, and the winner of the Del Mar Mile in the BC Mile. The program is called "Win and You're In."

"It should be 'win and you can have the Breeders' Cup wherever you want,' " O'Neill cracked. Lava Man has never won outside California, and the 2007 Breeders' Cup will be held at Monmouth Park. Nonetheless, O'Neill said the BC Classic is "still a longshot option."

ESPN2 will televise the three graded Del Mar races in a one-hour broadcast Sunday starting at 4 p.m. The Pat O'Brien, featuring Surf Cat, is race 3, while race 7 is the Del Mar Mile, in which Crossing the Line faces Out of Control. The Sunday card includes a $1 million guaranteed pool in the pick six on races 5-10. First post is 1 p.m. Pacific.

The field for the Pacific Classic includes Grade 2 Strub Stakes winner Arson Squad,

Grade 2 San Fernando winner Awesome Gem, 3-year-olds Albertus Maximus and Time Squared, shipper Student Council, Salty Humor, and Bobby Frankel-trained Hello Sunday and Porfido.

Frankel has won the Pacific Classic six times, and if he wins this year, it will be with a longshot. Hello Sunday was a Group 3 winner in Europe, but in his first three starts for Frankel he was keen, rank and ultimately tired. He switched to Polytrack for a July 19 allowance and ran like a different horse to win by two lengths.

"Heavier going slows down a horse that pulls," Frankel explained. "He sure seems to like that Polytrack. He won pretty easily the other day. We didn't do anything other than switch surfaces."

Hello Sunday is 20-1 on the track line, and if he continues to improve has a chance to spring an upset under Brice Blanc.

Porfido finished fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and though Frankel believes he will benefit from the switch to Polytrack, he said Porfido "seems to run in the stretch," which could be too short for him at Del Mar.

The two Mitchell trainees must weave through traffic of a big field. "The fact that it's a mile and a quarter, and the fact that a lot of horses tend to labor on this track, they'll be more spread out," Mitchell said, hoping for a clear run.

Sun Boat won the San Diego with a perfect trip under Michael Baze, and he will be turned out after Sunday to freshen for a winter campaign.

"I've been hard on him," Mitchell said. Meanwhile, Big Booster is a fresh horse that Mitchell believes is coming up to a huge effort. Garrett Gomez rides Big Booster, making his first start since a closing third in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Mitchell credits the recent improvement of Sun Boat and Big Booster to being gelded after they were claimed, and switching to synthetic surfaces. He said neither horse would be considered for the BC Classic, which will be run on conventional dirt at Monmouth.

Awesome Gem finished second in the San Diego, even though trainer Craig Dollase said he tends to get hold of the artificial Cushion Track at Hollywood "a little better than down here. Some horses really take to [Polytrack], others are just okay over it. He handles it okay."