12/28/2009 12:00AM

Lava Man might start in January

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Barbara D. Livingston
Lava Man could make another start in January, possibly in the Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 30.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The last-place finish by Lava Man in Sunday's $150,000 San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita left trainer Doug O'Neill blaming himself for not having the 8-year-old gelding fit enough for his first start in 18 months and pondering how to approach a 2010 campaign.

O'Neill said Lava Man could be sent to veterinarian Doug Herthel at Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic in central California for a medical checkup in coming days. The trainer indicated that a start in January is possible for the gelding, who has won 17 of 47 starts, $5,268,706, and seven Grade 1 races.

"We'll have to play it by ear," O'Neill said. "I might send him to Dr. Herthel and let him do a once-over."

The Grade 2 San Gabriel, run over 1 1/8 miles on turf, was Lava Man's first race since he resumed training in late summer after undergoing stem-cell therapy to regenerate cartilage tissue in an ankle earlier this year. It was his first start since a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar in July 2008. His retirement was announced after that race.

On Monday, O'Neill moved away from an immediate decision to retire Lava Man again.

"I don't want to react to the boo birds," O'Neill said. "There's been a lot of effort that went into this."

Lava Man led for the first seven furlongs of the San Gabriel. Ridden by Tyler Baze, Lava Man was challenged on the final turn and faded from contention. He was beaten 6 1/4 lengths by race winner, Proudinsky.

"When Tyler asked him to separate [from the other horses] on the turn and he didn't, I knew he wasn't ready to do what I asked him to do," O'Neill said. "He drank two full buckets of water, which is rare for him and a glaring sign of him being tired."

Co-owner Jason Wood thought Lava Man was capable of hitting the board.

"I expected him to be tough and run 1-2-3," he said. "But a mile and an eighth off a layoff is asking a lot. He was training so well. I thought he'd do it."

Lava Man returned to the unsaddling area with blood visible on both hind legs. He needed stitches to close a wound on his right hind leg, O'Neill said. The minor injury is believed to have occurred in the gate.

"There was a lot of blood," O'Neill said. "Tyler said he was kicking out in the gate."

In recent weeks, O'Neill and the partnership that owns Lava Man - Steve, Tracy, and Dave Kenly and Wood - have considered the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Classic for California-breds and Florida-breds over 1 1/8 miles on the main track here Jan. 30 as a goal. Despite the loss on Sunday, the race remains a possibility.

"I like the restriction on that race," O'Neill said. "There is no telling."