08/18/2005 11:00PM

Lava Man out to prove he's for real

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Sunday afternoon at Del Mar, after the surveillance team clears out from the stables, and handicappers stop mulling speed figures, and the debate over racing surface ends, a Grade 1 horse race will be run.

The story lines woven in the $1 million nearly exceed the number of horses in the race. Twelve entered, and 11 are expected to contest the 1 1/4-mile race in which Lava Man seeks validation. A former claimer, he enters off a runaway victory in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. Is he a good horse, or merely a Hollywood horse for course?

The race could mark the coronation of Grade 2 Swaps winner Surf Cat, a 3-year-old facing older for the first time. Perfect Drift, a top-class gelding for more than three years, is out to prove speed handicappers wrong; millionaire Choctaw Nation, claimed by Jeff Mullins from Bruce Headley for $40,000 in his debut, tries again to stay 1 1/4 miles.

It is a good race, with chilly overtones. Every starter will be monitored by security for 24 hours leading to the race.

"I'll be interested to see how some of these horses run with 24-hour surveillance," said Headley, the trainer of Surf Cat.

Post time for the Pacific Classic - race 8 on a 10-race card - is 4:45 p.m. Pacific. Bettors who are live in the $1 million-guaranteed pick six (races 5-10) will peg most hopes on the four betting choices - Lava Man, Surf Cat, Perfect Drift, and Choctaw Nation. A few others entered; some even have a fighting chance.

East Coast shipper Super Frolic looms an upset candidate off sharp works and projected improvement; Borrego typically finishes well but typically hangs; graded-stakes winner Congrats will be taken back and will come with a run.

The others are tough to find, including overmatched mare Island Fashion, who is being forced to walk the plank again outside her division. Musique Toujours was unplaced in two previous graded stakes, but his early speed affects the pace scenario. Oceanus and Ace Blue are not fast enough; Polish Times is expected to scratch.

The numbers suggest Lava Man is a lock - his Hollywood Gold Cup romp six weeks ago earned a 120 Beyer. Yet the Hollywood-to-Del Mar transition is reason for doubt.

"If we could pick up the surface at Hollywood Park and bring it down here, we probably would be a cinch," said trainer Doug O'Neill.

In truth, there is no guarantee Lava Man will reproduce form in new surroundings first start back from a career-best effort.

"Weightwise and energywise, he looks like he's had enough time," O'Neill said. "And the way he's training, I think he will [hold form]."

Pat Valenzuela rides Lava Man.

Surf Cat, five-length winner of the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes over 3-year-olds, has not run a two-turn speed figure close to the Pacific Classic par of 117. But the 3-for-6 colt is working beautifully at Del Mar, and enters with a seven-pound weight break. Alex Solis rides.

Perfect Drift has not earned a speed figure this year that is fast enough, either. His best dirt number this year is 102. It hardly concerns Perfect Drift's trainer, Murray Johnson, who said, "It's racing - there are more variables than you can put in a number."

Perfect Drift, 11 for 31 with earnings of more than $3.4 million, overcame a tough trip to beat weak foes last out in the Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap at Arlington. Despite setting a track record (1:54.27), he earned an ordinary 102 Beyer.

"It doesn't make much sense to me, but we'll find out Sunday, I guess," Johnson said.

Perfect Drift finished second in last year's Pacific Classic under Pat Day; Mark Guidry rides him Sunday.

Choctaw Nation, who has earned more than $1 million since owner Bob Bone and Mullins claimed him for $40,000, is the other returnee. Though he lost his punch in both his starts at 1 1/4 miles, there were extenuating circumstances each time. He was fighting a quarter crack and nearing the end of an ambitious campaign last summer when he ran fourth in this race. This spring, he was dead short when third in the Dubai World Cup.

A six-time winner from 10 starts, Choctaw Nation and jockey Victor Espinoza benefit from a busy pace scenario.

"He's one of those horses that you want a full field," said Bone, the meet's leading owner. "You want things to be happening up front."

There is plenty of speed, led by Lava Man, Musique Toujours, and Ace Blue. Super Frolic is a presser who will be among the first to make a run at the leaders.

The number of starters is a reflection of the perceived quality. In the richest race of the Del Mar season, no one is afraid of anyone.

The field

Pacific Classic
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1Polish TimesK. Desormeaux12430-1
2Choctaw NationV. Espinoza1249-2
3BorregoG. Gomez12415-1
4Lava ManP. Valenzuela1242-1
5Surf CatA. Solis1175-2
6Super FrolicJ. Lumpkins12430-1
7Musique ToujoursJ. Chavez12430-1
8CongratsT. Baze12415-1
9Island FashionC. Nakatani11920-1
10OceanusJ. Valdivia12430-1
11Ace BlueD. Flores12420-1
12Perfect DriftM. Guidry1245-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Sunday, 7-8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2