07/11/2005 12:00AM

Lava Man king of the hill for now

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Lava Man earned a 120 Beyer for his Hollywood Gold Cup win.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - When Lava Man walked into the starting gate at 6-1 for Saturday's $750,000 , co-owner Jason Wood shrugged and thought to himself that the gelding just cannot earn any respect.

About two minutes later, opinions quickly changed.

Lava Man won the Gold Cup by a record 8 3/4 lengths, the widest winning margin in the 66-year history of the race. Lava Man was always close to the front, stalking the pacesetter, Congrats, to the top of the stretch before drawing off.

"I thought we were in the perfect position," Wood said. "When I saw no one was coming, it was incredible."

The victory has given Lava Man a temporary position at the top of the California handicap division, at least until Santa Anita Handicap winner Rock Hard Ten returns in the fall.

Conversely, this was not a vintage field for the Grade 1 Gold Cup. None of the nine starters had won a Grade 1 stakes this year.

"It was a lackluster field," said Doug O'Neill, who trains Lava Man.

Still, Lava Man gave an outstanding performance, finishing 1 1/4 miles in 1:59.63.

Lava Man earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 120 in the Gold Cup, which ranks among the best figures of the year. Ghostzapper recorded a Beyer of 122 for his win in the Metropolitan Mile Handicap in May, and Bellamy Road earned a 120 for his win in the Wood Memorial in April.

Lava Man will have a chance for a third consecutive major stakes win in the $1 million Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar on Aug. 21.

Not bad for a gelding who began his career with a fourth-place finish in a $12,500 claimer for maidens at the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton in June 2003.

Last summer at Del Mar, Wood and the father-son team of David and Steve Kenley claimed Lava Man for $50,000.

"I have to give the Kenleys all the credit," Wood said. "When they asked if I wanted in, I said, 'Of course, I'm in.' We thought we had a Cal-bred with good opportunities. The horse continues to blossom under Doug."

Since being claimed, Lava Man has won four races, including the Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex Park last September. He was second in the California Cup Classic, On Trust Stakes, and Grade 1 Malibu Stakes in his final three starts of 2004.

This year, Lava Man's form took a turn for the worse in his first few starts. He lost three stakes before O'Neill added blinkers and dropped him into an optional claimer in May, risking him for $100,000. Lava Man won and was not claimed, but the experience rattled Steve Kenley.

"It was a little daring," he said. "I was worried about losing him."

Lava Man won his first major stakes in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on June 18, but the win in the Gold Cup left O'Neill stunned.

"If you look at his record since the latter part of last year, he's shown he's extremely talented," O'Neill said.

The Gold Cup was by far the biggest win for the Kenley-Wood partnership. They began claiming horses a few years ago. In the race preceding the Gold Cup, they finished second with Dover Dere, a rare purchase from a 2-year-olds in-training sale for Wood.

Wood, who is in the mortgage business and lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., said claims are considered almost daily and said Steve Kenley often makes suggestions. "He'll say, 'This is what I like and this is why,' " Wood said.

Kenley, whose family farms rose bushes, wheat, and barley in Arizona, pores over published material to narrow potential claims. The Gold Cup left his emotions on the surface.

"I was shaking," he said. "We were so excited. We could hardly see straight. It's a rarity to get a horse like this."