06/09/2008 12:00AM

Lava Man raises his owners' hopes


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - To an extent, Lava Man revived his career with a game third in Saturday's Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park.

The performance left the owners of the millionaire 7-year-old gelding and trainer Doug O'Neill dreaming of a record-breaking fourth consecutive win in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on June 28.

"That has got to be the game plan," O'Neill said.

O'Neill said that Lava Man emerged from the race "a little tired, but not bad."

Lava Man led by as many as seven lengths midway through the 1 1/4-mile Whittingham and was beaten a neck and a nose by race winner Artiste Royal and Monzante. The field caught Lava Man in early stretch, but he was game to the wire.

"I don't think any of us thought we'd be that far ahead of the rest of the field," O'Neill said. "He was tenacious late in the race."

Owned by the Kenly family's STD Racing and Jason Wood, Lava Man is winless in five starts since the 2007 Gold Cup. He was sixth in three stakes last year - the Pacific Classic, Oak Tree Mile, and California Cup Classic - before being turned out for the winter. In his return, he finished a modest third in the Khaled Stakes for statebreds here April 27. The performance in the Whittingham, a race he won in 2006 and was runner-up in last year, was a brighter effort.

"For a third-place finish, I don't think I've ever been that ecstatic," Wood said. "He ran lights out. If it were a mile and an eighth, we would have won.

"As long as Lava Man says he wants to go, we'll go" to the Gold Cup, Wood said. "We're looking forward to it. I think he's got a legitimate shot."

Lava Man has won seven Grade 1 stakes. To find an eighth in the Gold Cup, he may need a career-best effort. The favorite is expected to be Heatseeker, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap in March, a race Lava Man won in 2006 and 2007. Heatseeker won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes here May 31 in his most recent start.

Other possible starters in the Gold Cup are McCann's Mojave, On the Acorn, Perfect Drift, Tiago, Student Council, and Surf Cat.

Artiste Royal eyes Arlington Million

Artiste Royal has the Arlington Million on Aug. 9 as a long-term goal, trainer Neil Drysdale said.

Artiste Royal, a specialist over 1 1/4 miles on turf, rallied from fifth in a field of seven to win for the first time this year in the Whittingham.

The victory was the first for Artiste Royal since the Grade 1 Clement Hirsch Turf Championship at Santa Anita last October. Artiste Royal was eighth in the Japan Cup last November and was beaten in two one-mile turf races at Santa Anita, finishing second in the Frank Kilroe Mile and fourth in the Arcadia. One mile, Drysdale says, is too short for him.

Owned by David and Jill Heerensperger, Artiste Royal was third in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs last month over a good turf course that Drysdale said was too soft.

"He's always had excuses," Drysdale said.

Artiste Royal has won 6 of 25 starts and $773,990. Drysdale said there was a chance that Artiste Royal could start in the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on turf at Del Mar on July 20 as a prep for the Arlington Million.

Champs Elysees, who finished fifth as the 4-5 favorite in the Whittingham, may be sent to trainer Bobby Frankel's New York stable, assistant trainer Humberto Ascanio said Sunday.

Champs Elysees, winner of the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes in January and the runner-up in the Grade 2 Jim Murray Handicap last month, trailed Lava Man by more than 12 lengths early in the race.

Jockey Rafael Bejarano "said he had no horse," Ascanio said. "He's a better horse than that. It wasn't his day."

Tres Borrachos returns in Affirmed

It was only last week that Beau Greely got around to watching the replay of the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico on May 17.

It was not Big Brown's comprehensive victory that Greely wanted to avoid seeing, but the stumble at the start by Tres Borrachos, a longshot trained by Greely.

"I didn't feel like watching," he said. "He went to his knees. It was over."

Greely is not suggesting in any way that Tres Borrachos, who finished ninth, would have beaten Big Brown, he just wishes his gelding would have had better luck at the break.

The competition will be much easier when Tres Borrachos starts in Sunday's $100,000 Affirmed Handicap. His stiffest competition may come from his own barn. Greely may start Exuma, who was third in the Alydar Stakes on May 24 in his stakes debut.

Greely has family connections to both horses. Tres Borrachos, third in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby in March and third in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby in April, is owned by a partnership that includes Greely and his brother John. Exuma is owned by Greely's father, also named John. The family bred both geldings in Kentucky.

"It will be a little family fight," he said. "Exuma has a lot of talent, and Tres Borrachos has a lot of heart."

The Grade 3 Affirmed is run over 1 1/16 miles. The other candidates are Bingham, Dixie Chatter, and Two Step Salsa. Two Step Salsa and Dixie Chatter were first and third in the Grade 3 Laz Barrera Memorial Stakes on May 18; Bingham was fourth in the Alydar Stakes.

Exuma was beaten 1 1/4 lengths by Trevor's Clever in the Alydar, which was run over 1 1/8 miles. Ridden by Joel Rosario, Exuma was third on the turn, fourth in midstretch, and made up ground late to regain third.

"I'm not sure if he's a little green or his jockey may have made an early move," Greely said. "He wants to make a late run. No complaints about the way he rode him."

Tres Borrachos was beaten 17 1/2 lengths by Big Brown and has not won in five starts since a maiden race here last November.

"The only thing I hoped was that he came back well," Greely said. "He's trained well since. He was doing great into the Preakness."

Pick six pays $400,193 to one

There was one winning pick-six ticket Saturday that was worth $400,193 and was purchased in Nevada, according to track officials. The only winning favorite in the sequence was Downtown Lover ($6), the winner of the last race. Downtown Lover was the only horse covered in the pick six in the last race.