10/05/2006 12:00AM

Lava Man looking good as ever

Lava Man made his first start of the year in January, and since then he has won all six of his starts, four of them in Grade 1 company, on both dirt and turf.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Perhaps the weight spread will get . Perhaps one of his rivals will jump up with the race of his life. It might happen. But as Lava Man prepared for the Grade 2, $500,000 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap on Saturday at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meeting, there was no indication that the year-long campaign he has waged has taken any toll on him.

Lava Man made his first start of the year in January, and since then he has won all six of his starts, four of them in Grade 1 company, on both dirt and turf. Yet he has retained the healthy glow of a horse seemingly at the peak of fitness as he heads into the Goodwood and then, assuming he runs well on Saturday, his most important start of the year, next month’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“It shows what an amazing animal he is,” Lava Man’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, said as he admired the 5-year-old gelding in his stall the other morning at Hollywood Park. “I think it has a lot to do with the foundation he had before we ever had him. He’s muscular, good-boned. He’s got a good disposition. He’s very kind on himself. Most horses, with that much racing and changes of venues, they don’t hold their coats well.”

Lava Man is the best older horse in California, and is a leading candidate for Horse of the Year. The Goodwood is his final prep for next month’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, where looms a potential showdown with Bernardini and Invasor.

The Goodwood is the sixth race on a 10-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time. It highlights an Oak Tree program with two other races with Breeders’ Cup implications, the Oak Tree Breeders’ Cup Mile, featuring turf star Aragorn, and the Ancient Title Breeders’ Cup Stakes for sprinters, including Pure as Gold and Bordonaro.

The Goodwood is also the final leg of an NTRA National Pick 4 wager that begins with the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park and continues with the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland and Belmont’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, featuring Bernardini. The pick four, which has a guaranteed pool of $400,000, will be seen, along with two other races, on a two-hour ESPN2 telecast that begins at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time.

The 1 1/8-mile Goodwood drew six others – including such well-known runners as Brother Derek and Giacomo – who will be receiving significant weight breaks from Lava Man. He carries 126 pounds, equaling the highest impost of his career. His two previous starts carrying 126 pounds – the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Japan Cup Dirt – were weight-for-age. Lava Man ran poorly in both races. The Goodwood marks the first time he has carried 126 in a handicap.

Brother Derek gets 11 pounds from Lava Man. He has won all four of his starts at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Derby in April. But he has lost three straight races, and was a dull fourth as the 2-5 favorite when making his comeback in last month’s El Cajon Stakes at Del Mar.

“I’m not apprehensive. You’ve just got to throw that race out and go on,” Dan Hendricks, the trainer of Brother Derek, said Thursday morning at Santa Anita. “He’s run too many good races here. He’s healthy. He’s 0 for 2 at Del Mar.”

Giacomo, who is 1 for 6 since his victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby, was fifth to Lava Man in the Pacific Classic, which followed a victory in the San Diego Handicap.

“His last race was his second start off a long layoff,” his trainer, John Shirreffs, said at Santa Anita Thursday morning. “He was stuck inside, and he was pulling. He’s trained here since Del Mar, and he worked really well last time.”

An intriguing upsetter is Super Frolic, who was third in the Pacific Classic after racing four paths wide the whole way. After carrying equal weight last time, Super Frolic gets a nine-pound break from Lava Man in the Goodwood. His trainer, Vladimir Cerin, has changed riders to the vastly improved David Cohen.

“I think a lot will depend on the shape of the race,” Cerin said. “I’m looking for plenty of speed with Lava Man, Brother Derek, and Preachinatthebar. Hopefully my horse can be on the rail going into the first turn, get off the rail down the backside, and pounce. My horse is training the best he ever has in the 13 months I’ve had him. If he runs like that on Saturday, he will be a formidable opponent.”