04/27/2008 11:00PM

Lava Man still eyeing Gold Cup

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Lava Man's losing streak continued into 2008 with a third-place finish in the Khaled Stakes for statebreds on Sunday, but trainer Doug O'Neill said his faith in the 7-year-old multi-millionaire gelding has not wavered.

Lava Man is winless in four starts since his third consecutive win in the Hollywood Gold Cup last June.

After Sunday's turf race, O'Neill hinted that Lava Man remains on course for an attempt at an unprecedented fourth win in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 28. Owned by Jason Wood and the Kenly family's STD Racing, Lava Man could return in the $250,000 Californian Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on the main track on May 31.

"If he comes out of it okay, we can say he still belongs with the better horses," O'Neill said. "We figured he'd need a race or two. The Gold Cup is the race we'll focus on. If he's doing well and everything, that's where we want to be."

In the Khaled Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on turf, Lava Man finished 2o1/2 lengths behind race winner Mr. Wolverine, failing to show a stretch run that has led to seven Grade 1 wins. Ridden by Corey Nakatani, Lava Man stalked Epic Power to the top of the stretch, but could not get any closer.

"We were disappointed, but he ran a really good race," O'Neill said. "Corey rode him brilliantly. I loved where he had him. He was blowing pretty hard, and that's a sign of conditioning."

Sky's the limit for Surf Cat - again

Is this the year that Surf Cat finally makes it to the Breeders' Cup?

After disappointments at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Surf Cat is once again on course for a big spring and summer after winning the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap on Saturday for the second time in his career.

The 6-year-old Surf Cat won the 2006 Mervyn LeRoy but did not start again that year because of a bruised foot. Last year, Surf Cat was winless in three starts, including a fifth in the Oak Tree Turf Mile in October, his turf debut. He emerged from that race with a respiratory infection, co-owner Marsha Naify said at the time.

With all that apparently behind Surf Cat, Saturday's win in the Mervyn LeRoy was a highlight for Naify.

"This is better than winning it the first time," she said. "We've tried for the last couple of years to get him to the Breeders' Cup. We're trying again."

Trainer Bruce Headley said that Surf Cat could start in the $600,000 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on May 26, or the Californian.

Later, the question will surface as to which race best suits Surf Cat. He seemingly could run in the BC Sprint at six furlongs, the BC Dirt Mile, or the BC Classic. The Breeders' Cup will be run at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting on Oct.o24-25.

For now, Naify, co-owner Aase Headley, and trainer Bruce Headley are just happy to have Surf Cat back in top form.

"He can do it all," Naify said. "Bruce has a done a great job of training him."

El Gato Malo's Plan B

The realization that El Gato Malo will not make the Kentucky Derby field is sinking in for trainer Craig Dollase. "I think we're going to the Preakness," he said on Sunday.

All that means is that Dollase's enthusiasm has shifted to the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico on May 17, especially after El Gato Malo worked six furlongs in 1:12.20 at Hollywood Park on Saturday.

El Gato Malo needs a few defections to make the Kentucky Derby field, and that seemed highly unlikely over the weekend.

"You never know," Dollase said, trying to stay optimistic. "We need to keep that little hope we'll get in."

If El Gato Malo misses the Kentucky Derby, Dollase will be hoping to surprise the runners from that race with a fresh rival in the Preakness. El Gato Malo has won 3 of 5 starts and $215,200. He won the Grade 3 San Rafael Stakes in January and lost two races to Kentucky Derby leading contender Colonel John - a second in the Gradeo3 Sham and a fifth in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 5.

The Saturday workout left Dollase optimistic that El Gato Malo can regain his best form.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "He galloped out a mile in 38 and change."

Sky Cape's role becoming apparent

Sky Cape was playing to his strength when he won his first stakes in the $77,500 Harry Henson Stakes at six furlongs on turf Friday. "I think he's a late-running sprinter," trainer and co-owner Kristin Mulhall said.

The hard part for Mulhall and co-owner Steve Taub will be finding more turf sprints for the 3-year-old. Sky Cape's three wins have come in sprints - a maiden special weight race at 4 1/2 furlongs last May and an optional claimer on the hillside turf course at Santa Anita on January.

In the Henson, Sky Cape rallied from last in a field of eight under jockey Victor Espinoza to win by 1o1/4 lengths over Two Step Salsa, finishing in 1:08.49.

"He's been runner-up so many times," he said. "Victor was super patient."

Mulhall is resisting the temptation to try Sky Cape around two turns in a race such as the $100,000 Will Rogers Stakes at a mile on turf on May 17. The $100,000 Laz Barrera Memorial Stakes at seven furlongs on the main track on May 18 is a possibility.

"I think he gets rank when he goes longer," Mulhall said. "I want to try to keep him on the grass."

* Hollywood Park guaranteed that Sunday's pick-six pool would reach $1 million, but only $981,195 was bet. The track made up the difference.