08/16/2007 11:00PM

Lava Man out to win for Noe


DEL MAR, Calif. - At about 9:30 on a hot and humid Friday morning at Del Mar, Lava Man, under a green cooler, and Ruthie Barrera, wearing a matching green T-shirt, could be found walking an oval pathway pounded out between the Del Mar receiving barn and the southern wall of the all-purpose building that houses the horses trained by Doug O'Neill.

Traffic, both foot and wheeled, poured through the guarded stable gate just yards away. At one point, Lava Man plodded along behind a golf cart and a sightseeing family of five, while another electric cart trailed at his tail, patiently waiting to pass.

The message was clear. Lava Man, a bona fide Thoroughbred superstar, is also part of the California scenery, unfazed by the industrial bustle of the West Coast backsides. Pastoral they ain't, but they are home sweet home to Lava Man, who usually saves his best for big days like Sunday, when he defends his title in the $1 million Pacific Classic against 12 opponents with upset very much in mind.

There is very little left to reveal about the 6-year-old Lava Man, three-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup, two-time champ of the Santa Anita Handicap, and earner of more than $5 million in O'Neill's care. Everyone knows by now that he was named by Kim Kuhlmann, one of his breeders, for the Lavaman Triathlon, held each April at Anaehoomalu Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. It costs $150 to enter. There is no prize money involved. For those interested, the Lavaman Traithlon requires competitors to swim 1 1/2 kilometers, bike 40 kilometers, and run 10 kilometers over a course that includes pavement, sand, lava, flagstone, grass, and cinder path. Nope, no Polytrack.

Lava Man was foaled on March 20, 2001, at Poplar Meadows Farm near the town of Sanger, just east of Fresno. His official lip tattoo is E47526. He has his own MySpace page, courtesy of a rabid fan, with more than 300 "friends" listed. He is galloped daily by Antonio Romero.

In addition to alfalfa hay, available 'round the clock, Lava Man eats 16 quarts of mixed feed each day - breakfast at 10 a.m., dinner at 4 p.m., and then a bedtime snack at 8:30 p.m. - consisting of oats (both cooked and dry), carrots, and beet pulp, and supplemented with Platinum Performance, a concoction of omega-3 fatty acids, trace minerals, electrolytes, glucosamine sulfate, antioxidants, vitamins, amino acids, and mucilage.

Lava Man is wearing glue-on shoes, applied by farrier Jimmy Jimenez, in deference to an abscess that surfaced after his win in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 30, his most recent start. The hoof has been troubled, off and on, since he ripped the frog raw running in the 2005 Japan Cup Dirt. Before the trip to Tokyo, Lava Man was bedded on shavings. Since then, O'Neill has kept him on thick, luxurious straw.

For these ears, it was good enough to hear from assistant trainer Leandro Mora that, to his eyes, Lava Man has rarely looked or trained better, even better than he did last summer when he won the Classic by 2 1/2 lengths over eastern invader Good Reward. Mora has decided that he will not waste his time worrying about whether or not Lava Man can handle the challenge of his first race on Del Mar's unique brand of Polytrack. Instead, he offers a more emotional push. Mora thinks Lava Man "will win this one for Noe."

Noe Garcia, a 39-year-old native of Guatemala, was Lava Man's groom until the wee hours of July 23, when a drunk driver flipped Garcia's van and Garcia lost most of his left arm. As far as Garcia is concerned, he is still Lava Man's groom, and he said so on his first visit back to the track this week. Inocencio Diaz, a trusted foreman in the O'Neill organization, has stepped in to care for Lava Man and Garcia's other horses right now, but as Mora noted, "Noe is determined to get back to work, somehow."

After all they've been through together - including those fruitless trips to Tokyo, Dubai, New York, and Kentucky - the sight of another man leading Lava Man to the paddock on Sunday should light a fire under Garcia to master whatever prosthetic device is eventually attached to the remains of his left arm. Whether or not he will be able to perform the specialized tasks required of a racehorse groom remains to be seen. But if he needs a role model, Garcia need only take a look at fellow Guatemalen Nicolas Alvarez, who works for trainer Marty Jones.

Alvarez, 52, lost the lower portion of his left arm nearly 30 years ago in a car wreck back home in Santa Rosa, the part of Guatemala known for its horse-wise population. He was left with a few inches of tapered forearm below the elbow.

With the help of his earliest California employers - John Gosden and then Rick Mettee - Alvarez was fitted with a prosthesis. But it didn't take.

"I can do better without," Alvarez said, with a little translating help from a friend. "But there is nothing I can't do with a horse."

"He's amazing," confirmed Marty Jones. "You should see him put on a bandage, as perfect as you'd want."

Neither Garcia nor Lava Man would settle for less.