01/25/2007 12:00AM

For Lava Man, it's back to work


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is easy to forget, but nearly three months ago Lava Man was on the verge of a Horse of the Year title.

If he had won the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in early November against an all-star cast that included the eventual champions Invasor and Bernardini, Lava Man's unbeaten season would have merited that coveted title. Instead, Lava Man finished seventh.

Saturday, Lava Man's winter vacation ends when he starts as the favorite in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf for California-breds and Florida-breds at Santa Anita. His job was made easier when perhaps his main rival, Revved Up, turned up lame in a foot earlier this week and did not ship from Florida, trainer Christophe Clement said.

The drop from a Grade 1 to a lucrative restricted race gives Lava Man a chance to start his 2007 season on a winning note. It is the same approach that trainer Doug O'Neill and the owners - STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood - took last year. In 2006, Lava Man opened his season with a convincing victory in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic here on dirt. He won six subsequent stakes through the year.

With the Sunshine Millions Classic being run in Florida this year, O'Neill and the partnership decided to stay home and run on turf.

"A turf race is a little kinder race than what he did last year, which ended up okay," O'Neill said.

The Turf is one of four Sunshine Millions races at Santa Anita on Saturday. Four others will be run at Gulfstream. The Sunshine Millions races are run as the second through fifth races on a program that begins at 11:45 a.m. Pacific.

Lava Man resumed training in early December, a month after the Breeders' Cup. O'Neill has spoken glowingly of the way the 6-year-old gelding has trained in recent weeks.

"He's back at full strength," O'Neill said. The Breeders' Cup "was a forgettable moment. It didn't pan out. For the most part, the old boy is ready."

Lava Man has drawn post 11. Despite the wide draw, O'Neill is not concerned that Lava Man will have a wide trip. The present of the quick Railroad and Wild Buddy, who drew the inside two post positions, will ensure a quick pace.

"It looks like there is some speed in there," O'Neill said.

With career earnings of $3,804,706, Lava Man is the only millionaire in the field, and is one of two graded stakes winners from 2006 in the field. Go Between won the Grade 2 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs last July.

The race has drawn the 2006 stakes winners Icy Atlantic, El Don, Railroad, and Super Strut.

Icy Atlantic was a pacesetter for stablemate English Channel last fall, finishing last in the Turf Classic and BC Turf. He won the Battlefield Stakes at the Meadowlands last summer.

Super Strut won the Crystal Water Handicap here last March and finished third in the California Cup Mile in October. Super Strut drew the outside for Saturday.