07/12/2006 12:00AM

Lava Man: The Seabiscuit of today

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Lava Man, a two-time winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup and a horse closing in on $3 million in earnings, got off to a famously slow beginning.

PHILADELPHIA - On June 19, 2003, Smooth Satin, O'Greedy, and Mitzies Lil Fun finished first, second, and third, respectively, in a $12,500 maiden claimer at Stockton over 4 1/2 furlongs. The winning Beyer Speed Figure was a 40. O'Greedy, making his second lifetime start, was the beaten 2-1 favorite. Smooth Satin, making his third start, was the second choice at 2.30-1. Mitzies Lil Fun, making his debut, led until the eighth pole before finishing third at 8-1.

It is not likely any of the top three is going to end up in the Racing Hall of Fame.

In fact, it was Smooth Satin's only win in five career starts. His last start came on October 26, 2004, at Turf Paradise. He finished fourth and was claimed for the second time in two races. What the new owners and trainers saw is not exactly clear.

O'Greedy needed 13 more starts to win his maiden. He won three more races before being claimed for $3,500 out of a May 6, 2005, race at Emerald Downs. A grandson of Danzig (yes, that Danzig), he has not raced since.

Mitzies Lil Fun races on. The gelding has raced 39 more times since his debut. He has three wins. He is on a current 27-race losing streak, but presses on at Thistledown, most recently beaten in a $3,500 claimer on July 2. He finished ninth at 37-1.

What exactly do these three have to do with anything? What do they have in common?

The horse that finished fourth that day at Stockton was 35-1. Last of nine early, this gelding passed four of his rivals, but simply could not catch Smooth Satin, O'Greedy, and Mitzies Lil Fun.

Really, what would you expect of Lava Man? Yes, that Lava Man - fourth in a maiden race at Stockton, beaten by 3 3/4 lengths with a 27 Beyer.

Lava Man did not start his career on the other side of the tracks. He started his career in a place where there are no tracks. Apparently, the horse needed a change of venue and a bit more distance.

Four races later, Lava Man won a maiden special weight on the grass at Golden Gate. Four races after that, Lava Man was 57-1 in the Snow Chief at Hollywood Park, a race restricted to California-breds. Lava Man finished last.

Last Saturday, nearly 27 months after his first visit to Hollywood Park, Lava Man was 3-5 in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. This is about as close to Seabiscuit as this sport has seen since Seabiscuit.

Think about this. The same horse that finished fourth behind Smooth Satin, O'Greedy, and Mitzies Lil Fun three years ago is now the favorite for Horse of the Year.

Who knew? Certainly, Lava Man's trainer Doug O'Neill could not have known. Nor could owners STD Racing and Jason Wood. They went in for $50,000 to claim Lava Man out of a Del Mar grass race on Aug. 13, 2004.

The gelding has since won the Gold Cup twice, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Californian on dirt. He almost defeated Rock Hard Ten in the 2004 Malibu. He barely lost the 2005 Pacific Classic. He won the Grade 1 Whittingham on grass. Think about that. What horse does that anymore? What horse even tries it?

What horse overcomes what Lava Man overcame last Saturday? It was one of those races you see, but don't quite comprehend. Lava Man really should not have won, but he did.

The same horse that could not win at Stockton has now compiled 12 triple-digit Beyers, including four in a row, a high of 120 in last year's Gold Cup, and three straight 108 Beyers - two on grass, one on dirt.

Lava Man is closing in on $3 million in earnings. The only thing left for him to prove is whether he can win somewhere other than in California. The horse was beaten by 45 1/2 lengths in the 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. In his next race, the Japan Cup, Lava Man lost by 17 1/2 lengths.

Hey, Lava Man could not win at Stockton, or Santa Rosa, either. That was three summers ago. This summer, it is all about Lava Man.