08/16/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man likely to find problems on Polytrack


DEL MAR, Calif. - Wise guys have been trying to beat Pacific Classic favorite Lava Man for the past year and a half. He is always an easy target.

Lava Man only wins races of dubious quality, and only in California. Lava Man's speed figures have declined, and his margins of victory have diminished.

And if he had not won the Hollywood Gold Cup by a nose last time, gosh, Lava Man would enter the Pacific Classic on Sunday at Del Mar having lost three in a row.

"He hasn't had any real wowing performances," trainer Doug O'Neill admits, while pointing out one of Lava Man's admirable qualities. "He's gutsy, he doesn't want to lose."

Most of the time, he just wins. Since January 2006, Lava Man has won 10 races and more than $4 million, and captured the imagination of everyone who enjoys stories of rags and riches. Claimed three years ago at Del Mar for only $50,000, Lava Man has scripted an unlikely tale.

"Lava Man is always the story because he has such a fan base," co-owner Jason Wood said early this week. "Selfishly, I would say [the Pacific Classic] is about Lava Man, but being a realist, it's about the surface."

The Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic will be run for the first time on Polytrack, a new synthetic surface that has changed the dynamics of the game. While skeptics wager against Lava Man because of low odds, even his supporters recognize that the slower Polytrack surface might not play to Lava Man's strength, which is his tactical speed.

"By no means are we a standout," O'Neill said. "A mile and a quarter on Polytrack probably plays more like a mile and a half on a conventional dirt track. I think a lot of guys are entering because they have horses that can truly get the distance."

While many in the 13-horse field are late kickers that rally from the back, Lava Man usually is in the first flight, pushing the pace before breaking it open on the far turn. O'Neill and jockey Corey Nakatani might need to revise strategy, because Polytrack is not kind to speed.

"It has been tough on the front end going two turns, it's [similar to] a turf race," O'Neill said. "These main-track races are much more of a rider's race. Kicking clear at the three-eighths pole probably is not going to work. You have to save . . . probably inside the quarter pole is when you really want to ask the question."

This summer, Polytrack has swallowed two-turn speed no matter the pace. As of Thursday, no horse had won a 1 1/16-mile Polytrack race by leading at every call. The pacesetters' record: 0 for 14. By contrast, during the spring-summer Cushion Track meet at Hollywood Park, pacesetters won nearly one out of every five races at 1 1/16 miles.

The anti-speed bias may also influence the Pacific Classic, which will be the first race of the meet at 1 1/4 miles. Polytrack final times around two turns are about three seconds slower than last year, and pacesetters frequently hit the wall at the head of the stretch.

Bill Spawr trained Yearly Attitude, who overcame the bias twice by leading wire to wire in Polytrack races at one mile. She was the exception. Most front-runners tire.

"They labor," Spawr said. "Some of them are just done. They're going easy and then they get into the stretch, and they just go flat."

Though perhaps a coincidence, Yearly Attitude was injured and vanned off after winning Monday.

Beyond the bias, the track changes throughout the day, which throws horsemen and handicappers another unexpected twist. The surface on which horses work out in the morning often bears little resemblance to the surface on which horses race in the afternoon.

"When the sun hits it, it puffs up like baking bread," Spawr said. "It slows down, and it's different. [Horses] train so well in the morning, then in the afternoon there's nothing there."

Other trainers say the same thing. "You cannot predict by how they are training in the morning how they are going to run in the afternoon," said John Shirreffs, who will start front-runner A.P. Xcellent and stretch runner Tiago in the Pacific Classic.

"So many horses work well, and then run poorly," Shirreffs said. "You don't know until you run them." He described horses that like the surface as "light horses that don't hit the ground too hard and skip over it, and horses with long strides that don't have to take too many steps. Big, strong horses that get into the track a little bit, it's tough on them."

The Shirreffs-trained A.P. Xcellent is expected to set the pace Sunday, against the bias. Why bother?

"You have to take advantage of the opportunity to keep him at a competitive edge, at the point where he is ready to fire a good one when the circumstances are right," Shirreffs said. "It's better to run, even though the racetrack doesn't do anything for him. The track would have to change dramatically to feel like he had a real good chance."

Six weeks ago at Hollywood, A.P. Xcellent came within a nose of upsetting Lava Man. But the Gold Cup was dominated by speed - the two-one pacesetters were one-two at the finish. Closers such as Big Booster (third) and Porfido (fourth), who ran against the grain, might have the bias at their backs on Sunday.

At very least, their odds will be relatively high in a Pacific Classic likely to be run in a final time between 2:04 and 2:05.

Jason Wood, who co-owns Lava Man with Dave and Steve Kenly, envisions a slow pace. "If we go 26 and 52, we're in good shape," he said, laughing. "It's kind of like starting over as far as handicapping, and figuring out what [times] are good, and what are not.

"It is safer for the horse, but with that, it's going to be slower. And at the end of the day, is it about the time or is it about the horse?"