06/28/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man seeks 3rd Gold Cup win

Charles Pravata/Horsephotos
Lava Man will try to win the Hollywood Gold Cup for the third consecutive year.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Sometimes, Lava Man wins like a superstar, pulling clear from his rivals the way he did in the 2005 Hollywood Gold Cup and 2006 Pacific Classic. Sometimes, Lava Man has to fight his way to the front and through the stretch, like he did in a nose win in the 2006 Hollywood Gold Cup or a three-quarter-length victory in the Santa Anita Handicap in March.

Through it all, Lava Man has become the undisputed leader of California's handicap division, the winner of $4,739,706 and 12 stakes. Saturday, Lava Man will try to win the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup for the third consecutive year, joining Native Diver (1965-67) as the only horse to do that.

With the recent retirement of reigning Horse of the Year Invasor, the Grade 1 Gold Cup and the Gradeo1 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park, also run Saturday, will help determine the top seed among the nation's older horses.

How Lava Man might win the Gold Cup has been foremost on trainer Doug O'Neill's mind in recent weeks. Lava Man, the 124-pound topweight, has lost his last two starts, a 16th-place finish in the Dubai Duty Free at Nad Al Sheba in March and a game second in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap here on Juneo9, a race he won in 2006 as a prep to the Gold Cup.

O'Neill, who will miss the race while vacationing in Ireland with family, has played out the scenarios in his mind. He knows that the closer Molengao, who gave Lava Man a late scare in the Big Cap, is the biggest threat in the Gold Cup field of nine. And O'Neill knows that Lava Man's loss last out and failed trip to Dubai have given critics a chance to question the form of the 6-year-old gelding.

"Hopefully, we shake clear of Molengao and hang on by the time we hit the wire," O'Neill said last week, playing out the race in his mind. "I think Dubai is in the past. It hasn't had any negative effect."

O'Neill and the owners - the Kenly family's STD Racing and Jason Wood - would prefer that Lava Man reach the record book with a performance similar to the 2005 race, which he won by a record 8 3/4 lengths, and not the 2006 running, when he overcame a stumble at the start.

O'Neill said the way Lava Man broke open the 2005 Gold Cup and 2006 Pacific Classic gave him "goose bumps."

"That has been his style - to put a little distance between us and them," he said. "In the non-Grade 1 horses, it can discourage them. We've seen some awfully good horses spit the bit."

The Hollywood Gold Cup is part of a one-hour telecast on ESPN2 from 4-5 p.m. Pacific. The program will feature coverage of the American Handicap at Hollywood and the Suburban Handicap at Belmont, which will be run earlier in the day.

The Gold Cup will be Lava Man's first race on a synthetic track, though he has trained on the Hollywood Park Cushion Track since it was installed last September.

"He's trained unbelievable on it," O'Neill said. "Turf horses seem to get along with it just fine. If we get beat, it should have nothing to do with the Cushion Track."

Lava Man has faced better fields than the one for Saturday's Gold Cup, but Molengao poses a serious threat. Trained by Paulo Lobo for T N T Stud, Molengao, 6, won the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap here by 4 1/2 lengths on May 5, his only start since the Big Cap loss to Lava Man.

Lobo is hoping for a reversal of the Big Cap result.

"I expect him to beat Lava Man this time," Lobo said.

Molengao is having the best year of his career. A Brazilian-bred who joined Lobo's stable in 2005, Molengao won his first stakes in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap over 1 1/8 miles in February.

"Maybe I did something wrong with him" early in his career, Lobo said, smiling. "He's a 6-year-old that's improving."

Molengao is a threat from off the pace, which will be set by A.P. Xcellent, who finished third in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes June 2. A.P. Xcellent is not likely to have much company on the front, which is fine with trainer John Shirreffs.

"When I breezed him the other day, I breezed him behind a horse and that's not his style," Shirreffs said. "I wanted to see how much flexibility we had and we found out it was zero. He has his style and that's not going to change."

Most in the field typically race from off the pace - A.P. Arrow, Big Booster, My Creed, Porfido, Saint Stephen, and Wilko.

Lava Man figures to be close to A.P. Xcellent for the first six furlongs, which is about when jockey Corey Nakatani has typically urged Lava Man to the front. What happens from there will determine Lava Man's place in Gold Cup history.