12/11/2009 1:00AM

Lava Man ready to return - maybe

Benoit & Associates
If Lava Man starts in Saturday's Native Diver, it will be his first start since July 2008.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - More than 16 months since his last start, Lava Man is poised for a comeback in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park - if the weather cooperates.

Trainer Doug O'Neill said the long-awaited return of Lava Man, the popular 8-year-old gelding, could be postponed to the Santa Anita winter meeting if an expected rain storm leaves Hollywood Park's Cushion Track brand synthetic surface soaked more than O'Neill would prefer.

A decision on whether Lava Man starts in the Native Diver may not be made until the morning of the race, O'Neill said.

"I think if it rains heavy, there's no chance we'd run," O'Neill said. "We won't do that.

"He's training so good on this track right here," he said. "It would change a little if it's raining that day."

Lava Man has won seven Grade 1 races, including the Hollywood Gold Cup from 2005-07. He has not raced since finishing sixth in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar in July 2008.

A lot has happened since then, nothing more important than the stem cell procedures designed to regenerate cartilage in his ankles. After that procedure was deemed a success, owners Jason Wood and Steve, Dave and Tracy Kenly - along with O'Neill - began to consider a comeback.

Lava Man arrived at O'Neill's Hollywood Park stable in early September and has had eight workouts since, the last four over six furlongs.

If the rain holds off, O'Neill acknowledged that asking Lava Man to win the Native Diver over 1 1/8 miles in his first start off a rest will be difficult.

"I expect him to show a lot of grit and competitiveness," O'Neill said. "I think he has a chance to win or run 1-2-3 with the way he's working."

Lava Man is the 118-pound highweight in the Native Diver. In the 2008 Eddie Read, he was assigned 120 pounds. In Saturday's race, he spots his five rivals two to five pounds. None of the six entrants is a stakes winner this year, though Mast Track was beaten a nose in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar in August, and expected pacesetter Tres Borrachos was second in the Hollywood Gold Cup in July.

O'Neill has three entrants. High Court Drama, an Irish-bred 4-year-old colt, won his U.S. debut in an optional claimer here Nov. 15. Square Eddie is seeking his first win since the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in 2008. He was 10th in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last month but will improve around two turns, O'Neill said.

"He trains more like a two-turn horse than a sprinter," he said. "I worried about his lack of fitness and whether he could go two turns for the Breeders' Cup."

Tres Borrachos is winless in four starts since taking an optional claimer on the main track here May 25. All three of his career wins have come on Hollywood Park's synthetic track.

Mast Track is winless in nine starts since the 2008 Hollywood Gold Cup. He was second to Native Diver entrant Neko Bay in an allowance race at Santa Anita on Oct. 9.

Neko Bay followed that win with a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 7. His trainer, John Shirreffs, said he would welcome wet weather.

"Synthetic tracks are always better with rain," Shirreffs said. "They seem to have more bounce."

Shirreffs said he thought Neko Bay was too close to the pace in the Breeders' Cup and is more effective when making a late run.

There should be pace for Neko Bay to follow in the Native Diver. It is unclear whether Lava Man will be one of those horses Neko Bay must catch to win the handicap.

* Hollywood needed an extra day to fill its Saturday program this week as a regional horse shortage, the possibility of wet weather this weekend, and the looming Santa Anita winter-spring meeting led to a reduction in the number of available horses.

The track typically draws Saturday programs Wednesday but postponed the draw until after lunch Thursday in an effort to attract more horses. Saturday's nine-race program has 59 entrants.