03/12/2008 11:00PM

Lava Man, with his favorite groom, gears up

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There was a familiar rhythm to life at trainer Doug O'Neill's barn on Wednesday morning here at Hollywood Park. Lava Man went out late with exercise rider Tony Romero for a workout, and when Lava Man came back to the barn, he was greeted by his longtime groom, Noe Garcia.

But things are quite different for all now than one year ago.

Last summer, Garcia lost his left arm in a horrible auto accident. Perhaps it was coincidental, but while Garcia was away recuperating, Lava Man's form went south. After losing three straight races, including one against California-breds in the California Cup Classic, Lava Man was given a lengthy vacation at the NexStar Ranch of Dave and Sommer Showalter in Temecula, Calif.

On Wednesday, Lava Man had his first official work since returning to O'Neill's stable. With Romero up, he was timed for three furlongs in 36.20 seconds, and went so easily that clockers at Hollywood Park termed the work "breezing," the only drill of 13 at the distance to be so recognized.

"I wanted him to go in about 37," O'Neill said as Lava Man galloped past O'Neill's backstretch perch following the drill. "Tony's a great rider, so that tells you Lava Man was full of energy."

O'Neill timed Lava Man galloping out a half-mile in 48.80 seconds.

Lava Man, 7, is not expected to race until Hollywood Park begins its season next month. It will be a familiar spot for Lava Man. He has won the track's signature race, the Grade 1, $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, the past three years, equaling the feat of Native Diver in the 1960s. This year's Gold Cup is scheduled for June 28.

That's a long ways off, literally and figuratively. First, Lava Man must return to his best form. His feet still need to be treated with caution. He is wearing bar shoes on both front feet.

"When he went to the farm, the main focus was hoof growth and trying to pile some weight on him," O'Neill said. "The Showalters did a great job with him. His feet look great, and the added pounds will come off as he gets fit."

It would be trite to compare Lava Man's return to that of Garcia, but O'Neill said there is an unmistakable bond between the two.

"Noe's back rubbing on him and you can just tell, this is what he was meant to do," O'Neill said. "It has to be a horrible psychological thing to lose a limb. But now he's back with the horses, and with his buddies at the barn."

Country Star prepares for Ashland

A little earlier Wednesday morning, Country Star continued to make progress toward her upcoming return with a five-furlong work in 59 seconds at Hollywood Park for trainer Bobby Frankel.

Country Star, who has not raced since capturing the Hollywood Starlet three months ago, is expected to return in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 5.

"She had a little temperature for a while, so I took my time instead of rushing her and messing her up," Frankel said.

Country Star's return will help shore up a 3-year-old filly division that looks particularly light right now. The fillies based in California this winter have not been inspiring, and 2-year-old champ Indian Blessing is not running in the May 2 Kentucky Oaks after suffering her first loss, in the Fair Grounds Oaks last Saturday.

But Frankel dismissed the idea that the coast is clear for Country Star. He was particularly impressed with Proud Spell, who beat Indian Blessing.

"She's good," he said. "All it takes is one to beat you to be unhappy."

April 5 figures to be a busy day for Frankel. He said he will run Ginger Punch, last year's champion older filly or mare, that day in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Ginger Punch worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Tuesday at Hollywood Park.

Declan's Moon trying again

Declan's Moon, 6, is still trying to recapture the form that made him the champion 2-year-old male of 2004. In his latest comeback, on Monday, he finished seventh of eight in a high-level allowance race, but Ron Ellis, his trainer, thought the race was better than it looked. The final time of the race was 1:14.53, meaning Declan's Moon, who was beaten 6 1/4 lengths, ran the distance in about 1:15.70 in his first start in six months.

"The problem is, you can't come back in any cheesy spots," Ellis said. "They ran six furlongs in 1:08 and 3 [actually 1:08.34], and 6 1/2 in 1:14 and 2, off a layoff. It's hard."

According to Ellis, Declan's Moon did not have any breathing problems in the race.

"That's cleared up," he said of a recurring issue. "But there's still a confidence factor, I think, with him - worried he's not going to be able to breathe."

Mr. Gruff ready to graduate

Ellis has an excellent chance to win Friday's fifth race at Santa Anita with Mr. Gruff, who finished fourth in his debut on Feb. 15 after setting a rapid pace going 6 1/2 furlongs. He shortens up to six furlongs on Friday, but still must beat Camel Point - who finished second in the Feb. 15 race, three-quarters of a length better than Mr. Gruff - as well as third-place finisher Classic Attire.

"I was disappointed he didn't win first time out," Ellis said. "He was a little short. That last sixteenth, he got tired. Hopefully it tightened him up. I really liked him first time out."

Proudinsky to Woodford Reserve

Frankel said that Proudinsky, who captured the Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap on Saturday at Fair Grounds, would make his next start in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve for older turf runners at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby card, May 3.

Frankel did not travel to New Orleans for the race, even though he used to frequent the city. He was particularly close with Muniz, the popular racing secretary for whom the race, formerly known as the Explosive Bid, was renamed after Muniz's death in August 2003.

"I haven't been back since his funeral," Frankel said. "I loved Mervin. It used to be like going home for me when I went there. They took such good care of me."

* Intangaroo, the Santa Monica Handicap winner, worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 on Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park for trainer Gary Sherlock.