07/09/2006 11:00PM

Lava Man looks like molten gold


NEW YORK - In the days following the unfortunate breakdown of Barbaro in the Preakness Stakes, the shock and despair from all concerned with racing ran deep. But as it was noted at the time, this game has an uncanny knack of rebounding from even the bleakest of moments. And on Saturday, evidence that we are in a true recovery from what befell Barbaro could be found all over the place, thanks to the gutsy win by Lava Man in the Hollywood Gold Cup, the determined victory by English Channel in the United Nations at Monmouth Park, and the eye-catching score by the immensely promising Circular Quay in the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs.

Over the last two seasons, Lava Man has demonstrated gameness - his victory in the Santa Anita Handicap last March comes to mind - and he has shown the ability to dominate, with his near-nine-length score in last year's Hollywood Gold Cup being a prime example. But Lava Man has never been more courageous than he was on Saturday. And that is really saying something, considering how dramatically he has improved since trainer Doug O'Neill claimed him 23 months ago for $50,000, a sum that seems downright paltry in view of the fact that Lava Man has subsequently earned more than $2.7 million.

Lava Man stumbled at the start of this Gold Cup, which is always trouble for a horse who was by far the quality speed of the race on paper. After recovering from that miscue, Lava Man appeared to fall into a perfect trip stalking a pace disputed by Magnum and Ace Blue. This, however, was one of those instances when appearances were deceiving. Instead of being a full beneficiary of that kind of trip, Lava Man moved into the fourth and fastest quarter-mile of the Gold Cup. His move was so strong - he might have actually shaded 23 seconds in that fourth quarter-mile - that Ace Blue suddenly dropped back because he simply couldn't keep up.

That move by Lava Man had to exact a severe toll on his reserves, especially when combined with his troubled start. But in the tradition of top racehorses, Lava Man, even if he was understandably weary, refused to lose. He worked hard to put away Magnum, and dug even deeper to resist the resurgent Ace Blue. Lava Man's winning margin might have been tiny, but his heart was as big as the Grand Canyon.

So the legend of Lava Man grows, and it's easy to see why so many have taken to calling him a "modern-day John Henry." Both geldings were refugees from the claiming ranks, and both were acquired inexpensively before going on to major wins on both turf and dirt. Of course, to make the comparisons to John Henry really legitimate, Lava Man is going to have to win a bunch of big races outside of Southern California, he is going to have to hold top form for three more years, and he has to bag a couple of Horse of the Year awards. But because Lava Man is the kind of horse he is, it will be fun watching him try.

English Channel still going strong

In the last few years, we have seen some really good American-based turf horses, with Kitten's Joy being just one. But rare over the last few seasons is the American-based turf horse who was able to put together back-to-back strong campaigns. Yet that is exactly what English Channel is in the process of doing. English Channel, in fact, has never run anything but a good race. And in the wake of his United Nations, English Channel's good race has been good enough 8 times in 13 career starts.

As consistent as English Channel is - and it is about time he gets the recognition he deserves for being so steady in a strong and deep turf division - he might never have been better than he was in the U.N. English Channel rated effectively farther off the early lead than ever before at this level (the rabbit Shake the Bank might have had something to do with that), and kicked home strongly enough to master the tough Cacique and mute the late kick of Relaxed Gesture, who closed like a wild horse in last month's Manhattan Handicap. That English Channel did this in his first start around three turns is not just some esoteric point. This year's Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs will be run around three turns, as will next year's Turf at Monmouth Park.

Youngster impresses

As if Lava Man and English Channel don't give us enough to look forward to, Circular Quay could be the icing on the cake. Favored in the Bashford Manor off a runaway victory in his debut last month at Churchill, Circular Quay, a 2-year-old son of Thunder Gulch, looked like he was going to be just another beaten favorite in deep stretch. He had four opponents in front of him, and didn't look like he was going anywhere. And then, Circular Quay exploded with a cyclonic finish up the inside. And Circular Quay didn't just get up. Amazingly, he actually won by daylight.

The only thing lacking in Circular Quay's package right now is the kind of strong Beyer Speed Figure that big time 3-year-olds often have a way of collecting at 2. The Beyer Figure of 83 that he earned Saturday matched the one he received in his maiden win. But given the way Circular Quay galloped out miles ahead of the rest of the Bashford Manor field, and considering his pedigree, it's a good bet his Beyers will rise substantially when he goes longer distances.