Updated on 09/17/2011 11:06PM

Lava Man losing little but underdog status

Lava Man goes into the Pacific Classic as the likely favorite after victories in the Californian and Hollywood Gold Cup. Claimed for $50,000 last summer, he has not lost since he started wearing blinkers in May.

DEL MAR, Calif. - From his vantage point on the lower level of the Hollywood Park grandstand, Leandro Mora, the top assistant to Doug O'Neill, had an excellent view of Lava Man's emphatic victory in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 9.

As the O'Neill-trained Lava Man pulled clear to win by 8 3/4 lengths, Mora noticed the vigorous cheering from rival trainer Beau Greely, whose Borrego was rallying from off the pace.

"When I saw Beau screaming for his horse, I thought he was screaming to win," Mora recalled recently. "But he was screaming to be second."

That's the way things have been this summer in California. Rival horsemen are finding themselves content to run second to Lava Man.

Sunday, Lava Man will be the favorite to win his third consecutive major race - the $1 million at Del Mar. So far this summer, Lava Man has won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park in June and the Grade 1 Gold Cup.

Not bad for a 4-year-old gelding who was claimed for $50,000 here in August 2004.

"It's been a happy shock," O'Neill said.

Lava Man's unlikely rise to prominence can be credited to the addition of blinkers, a move back to route races on dirt, and a weakened California handicap division.

Lava Man could finish no higher than fifth in three stakes from January to April. Lava Man finished seventh in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park, fifth in the Crystal Water Handicap on turf at Santa Anita in March, and sixth in the Tiznow Stakes over 7 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park. O'Neill, at a loss as to how to revive Lava Man's form, dropped Lava Man into an optional claiming race over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park on May 14 - Lava Man was in for the claiming price - and added blinkers at the suggestion of exercise rider Antonio Romero.

"We almost threw in the towel," Mora said. "Doug wanted to give him some confidence."

The result: a 1 1/2-length victory by Lava Man. He has not lost since.

Sunday's race will be Lava Man's sternest test.

Lava Man is expected to have 11 rivals, including Choctaw Nation, the winner of the San Diego Handicap on July 24; Perfect Drift, the winner of the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park on July 30; and Surf Cat, the winner of the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 9.

"You have to give him a lot of respect," Greely said of Lava Man. "But I hope we can go past him."

Lava Man's three-race winning streak has put added pressure on O'Neill and owners and Steve and Dave Kenley and Jason Wood to prove that Lava Man can perform at the highest level.

"We're hoping to keep it going in the right direction," said Wood, 39. "He's doing just as good as he was for the Hollywood Gold Cup.

"There is a little more weight on the shoulders. You feel a little pressure. There is something to being the second, third, or fourth choice. In the Gold Cup, the pressure was on Limehouse. It's a good problem to have."

After O'Neill claimed him last summer, Lava Man had an excellent second half of the year, beginning with a win in the Derby Trial at Fairplex Park.

"The claim was something that the Kenleys and Wood pushed for," O'Neill said. "If they hadn't called, we wouldn't be here."

Lava Man finished second or third in four consecutive stakes in late 2004, including a second in the California Cup Classic over 1 1/8 miles in October and a runner-up finish to eventual Santa Anita Handicap winner Rock Hard Ten in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes over seven furlongs on Dec. 26.

"When he ran against Rock Hard Ten, I started to dream," Mora said.

Said O'Neill, "He ran so well in the Malibu that he had me thinking that his potential was as a one-turn horse."

O'Neill, as it turns out, has a handicap star who is thriving in route races.

A win or a high finish on Sunday will lead to a start in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Oct. 1, a key prep to the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic there on Oct. 29.

Lava Man would have to be supplemented to the BC Classic for $360,000, if the Kenleys - father Dave and son Steve - and Wood choose that path.

Getting that far would cap a remarkable turnaround for Lava Man.

"To me, this shows that anyone can do it," O'Neill said. "If I can, anyone can. It shows you don't have to have a $4 million horse."