04/26/2008 12:00AM

Lava Man returns in Khaled at age 7

Benoit & Associates
Lava Man enters the $150,000 TVG Khaled Stakes as the overwhelming sentimental favorite.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Traditions combine Sunday at Hollywood Park, where prerace opinions of Lava Man will be as sharply divided as the California Gold Rush program on which he competes.

The once-mighty Lava Man returns Sunday from the longest layoff of his career - nearly six months - facing a simple question that few 7-year-old geldings could answer affirmatively. Is Lava Man still the same horse that won 17 races, more than $5.2 million, and three straight Hollywood Gold Cups?

"All I can go on is watching him in the mornings, and he seems like he's as good as ever," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "But, obviously, if he starts his '08 campaign the same way he finished his '07 campaign, it will be time to huddle up."

With his racing future at stake, Lava Man enters the $150,000 TVG Khaled Stakes (race 4) as the overwhelming sentimental favorite. But O'Neill, and owners Steve and Dave Kenly and Jason Wood, understand the implied responsibility. No one wants Lava Man to embarrass himself.

"They're not going to let a horse like Lava Man go out there and not be the same horse," O'Neill said. "Any sign that he is [off form] would be time to hang it up. But we're not seeing that in the morning."

Lava Man failed to hit the board in his final three starts last year. So which Lava Man shows up Sunday - will it be the fast, powerful front-runner that ranks third behind Tiznow and Best Pal as all-time leading Cal-bred money winners? Or is Lava Man a tired, past-his-prime gelding finally ready call it a career?

There are two possible answers, just as the Gold Rush card for Cal-breds is divided into two distinct sections. The first four races on the $1.3 million program are stakes with small fields and negligible wagering value. The last six races include only two stakes - the $150,000 Tiznow and a wide-open $250,000 Snow Chief. But what the last part of the card lacks in star power, it makes up for in volume.

A $1 million pick-six pool is guaranteed on races 5-10; each of the races has 12 or more starters. Grade 1 winner Bilo could be a standout racing 7 1/2 furlongs in the Tiznow (race 7), while a wide-open field of 3-year-olds race 1 1/8 miles in the Snow Chief (race 9). The pick-six sequence also includes two maiden races and two allowance races.

Good horses do not always make for good wagering contests, which is why the Hollywood Park racing office pushed four stakes to the front of the card. First post is 12:30.

Race 1 is the $150,000 Fran's Valentine for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on grass; Tiz a Blend is the favorite. Race 2 is the $150,000 B. Thoughtful for fillies and mares at seven furlongs; Tiz Elemental is the favorite. Race 3 is the $200,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles; Final Fling will be favored.

But the most intriguing contest is race 4, and if Lava Man is close to the same horse he once was, he should defeat Celtic Dreamin, Mr. Wolverine, Epic Power, Top This and That, and Dawn's Early Sky.

O'Neill said Lava Man was found to have a deep lung infection after he was turned out, which may have compromised his performance. He was given nearly three months off, returned to training early this year, and had his first workout March 12. After he resumed working, it was clear to O'Neill that Lava Man still had run, and they began looking for a spot.

"After a month or so, when we realized we were a little bit ahead of schedule, [the Khaled] looked like an ideal spot," O'Neill said. "It was not because of who might be in there, or a six-horse field, but because it was grass, and at a distance he was extremely successful and comfortable with."

Corey Nakatani will ride Lava Man as usual; O'Neill said Nakatani will wear Steve Kenley's silks. The lack of pace means Lava Man could end up dictating the tempo. And he can win if he can hold off Celtic Dreamin, the best closer in the field.

K.K. Sangara owns Celtic Dreamin, a 4-year-old gelding on his way up the ladder. Sangara and trainer Rafael Becerra claimed Celtic Dreamin for $40,000 from his debut; he has 6 wins and 4 seconds from 10 career starts, and earnings of more than $600,000. Alex Solis rides Celtic Dreamin.

Still, Sangara and Becerra know who they have to beat. "Is there speed in there?" Becerra asked. The answer is probably not enough. "How is Lava Man doing?" Becerra asked. Apparently, he is doing well.

But if Lava Man is over the hill, and if the torch is passed Sunday to Celtic Dreamin, the transition will be appropriate.

Three summers ago at Del Mar, Sangara attempted to claim an unknown gelding for $50,000 to run in the British Columbia Derby at his home track, Hastings Park.

Unfortunately for Sangara, his was not the only claim. He lost the shake to O'Neill, Wood, and the Kenlys. The horse was Lava Man.