08/15/2006 11:00PM

Lava Man in line for historic sweep

Lava Man has a chance to sweep the Big Cap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.

DEL MAR, Calif. - A unique piece of California racing history awaits Lava Man in the winner's circle of Sunday's $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Lava Man can become the first horse to sweep the state's major races for handicap horses - the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in March, the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup in July, and the Pacific Classic.

Owned by Jason Wood and the Kenly family's STD Racing, Lava Man is the first horse to be in this position.

"It would be an unbelievable accomplishment," said Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill.

The Pacific Classic has been run since 1991 and is much younger than the Gold Cup and Big Cap, which were first run in the 1930's. With a win on Sunday, Lava Man would do something that eluded such major handicap stars as Best Pal, Bertrando, Borrego, Cigar, General Challenge, Gentlemen, Milwaukee Brew, Pleasantly Perfect, Siphon, Skimming, and Tinners Way.

Some of those did not run in all three races, but many simply could not win all three. Best Pal deserves honorable mention. The popular gelding won the 1991 Pacific Classic, 1992 Big Cap, and 1993 Hollywood Gold Cup.

Owner John Toffan, who won the Pacific Classic with Free House in 1998 and Came Home in 2002, said there are several factors preventing horses from winning all three.

"I think one of the problems is the spacing," Toffan said. "You can go run somewhere else instead of waiting. There is a lot of time between the Santa Anita Handicap and the Gold Cup. The tendency is to run somewhere else - and things happen."

Injuries have prevented several winners of the Santa Anita Handicap from running in the summer, including Best Pal in 1992.

In addition, the list of contenders can get stronger as the year wears on. A trio of accomplished 3-year-olds - Best Pal (1991), General Challenge (1999), and Came Home (2002) - won the Pacific Classic in their first start against older horses. In 2003, the Argentine-bred Candy Ride did not start his U.S. campaign until June, and he went on to win the Pacific Classic in August.

Toffan, for one, is skeptical of the depth of competition that Lava Man has faced.

"There aren't a lot of good older horses around, at least this year," he said.

In 1996 and 1997 the three races were briefly linked in a series sponsored by the MGM Grand Casino of Las Vegas and called the MGM Grand Classic Crown. In 1996 a bonus of $2 million was offered to a horse who could sweep all three races. The bonus was raised to $3 million in 1997.

The series never paid out the bonus. In 1996, Luthier Fever was the only horse to run in all three races. He earned a $500,000 participation bonus for finishing second in the Santa Anita Handicap, being eased (but crossing the finish line) in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and finishing fifth in the Pacific Classic.

The following year, Gentlemen earned a $350,000 participation bonus for finishing third in the Santa Anita Handicap and winning the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic. He lost the Big Cap to stablemate Siphon, who later finished second in the Gold Cup and Pacific Classic and earned a $125,000 participation bonus.

Richard Mandella trained Gentlemen and Siphon. At the time, his stable was stacked with older horses, including Dare and Go, who won the 1996 Pacific Classic in a memorable upset against Cigar.

Mandella says that sweeping the three races is difficult.

"You need either a really good horse or less competition," Mandella said. "Siphon had quite a lot of competition."

Lava Man has won 12 of 32 starts and $2,904,706. He has earned an astonishing $2,806,103 since being claimed for $50,000 in August 2004.

His five stakes wins this year include three Grade 1 races. Last year, he was a game third in the Pacific Classic and was so exhausted after the race that he had to be vanned off.

"He gave us such a scare," O'Neill said. "We thought he broke down. You wanted to hug the horse even more. He gave everything he had. People don't do that and horses don't do that."

Now, Lava Man will be favored to win what could be a historic running of the Pacific Classic.

"To have a horse in the position to sweep the three big races in Southern California is meaningful," O'Neill said. "You don't want this trip to end."