03/02/2006 1:00AM

Lava Man takes owners on a dream ride

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ARCADIA, Calif. - As a group, the owners of Lava Man - Jason Wood and the father-son team of Dave and Steve Kenly - seemed subdued in the moments after their gelding won the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita on Jan. 28.

The three men were not as ebullient as they had been last summer after Lava Man won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes and Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, rising to the top of California's handicap division. Instead, they seemed content that Lava Man had put devastating losses last fall in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Japan Cup Dirt in Tokyo behind him - and had returned to the winner's circle.

"I think we were all relieved," Wood said earlier this week, reflecting on the post-Sunshine Millions Classic press conference. "Anytime you get beat like we did in the last couple of races, you wonder if he lost his fire. Part 2 is: Are we missing something physically? I think there was a big sense of relief that he was firing."

The win in the Sunshine Millions restored some of the respect that Lava Man earned last year, and has made him a top contender for Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. Furthermore, it confirmed that he was a deserving recipient as the 2005 California-bred horse of the year, given by the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

It may only be the first weekend in March, but a win by Lava Man on Saturday would make him a very heavy favorite to earn that title again this year.

"Anything less than a win would be disappointing," Steve Kenly said.

What makes Lava Man's presence in the Big Cap all the more remarkable is that trainer Doug O'Neill claimed the gelding on behalf of Wood and the Kenlys for $50,000 in August 2004 at Del Mar. At the time, they were hoping he would develop into a solid claimer. The Sunshine Millions was Lava Man's fourth stakes win for Wood and the Kenlys. Lava Man, by Slew City Slew, has career earnings of $1,584,706. He has earned $1,486,103 since being claimed.

"Look where he's taken us - he's the highweight in the Santa Anita Handicap," Steve Kenly said. "To get us to a race like this is a dream."

California-breds have a history of running well in the Big Cap. Cal-bred winners of the race include Best Pal (1992), Free House (1999), General Challenge (2000), and Tiznow (2001).

Lava Man is one of two statebreds in this year's field, joined by Texcess, who was third in the Sunshine Millions Classic.

O'Neill knows that Lava Man must improve from his Sunshine Millions performance, against California-breds and Florida-breds, to beat the likes of High Limit or Giacomo, the winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, in the Big Cap.

"We realize you don't gain a ton of respect coming out of a restricted race," he said.

From a speed figure perspective, Lava Man's latest win, which earned a 99 Beyer Speed Figure, is below the last race of High Limit (111) and Giacomo (103), a point that the astute handicapper in O'Neill realizes.

"In his comeback race, he ran a number that wasn't one of his top" numbers, O'Neill said. "Hopefully the Sunshine Millions is a race that shows he's back and is something we can build on."

Last summer, Lava Man rose to prominence, winning the Californian Stakes and Hollywood Gold Cup, where he earned a career-best 120 Beyer, and finishing a game third in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic. The latter two races impressed O'Neill.

"Either of those races would put him right there," he said. "Hopefully there isn't a lot of discussion about him before the race and a lot after the race."

Lava Man does have a dreadful fall campaign in his recent past - a seventh in the Jockey Club Gold Cup followed by an 11th in the Japan Cup Dirt. After Lava Man returned from Japan, O'Neill said he would be reluctant to send him on the road again.

Wood dismisses those losses. He said Lava Man arrived in New York too close to the race, and that the dirt course at Tokyo Racecourse "tore up his foot."

"If we were here, we would have scratched, but being there we took a shot," Wood said of the Japan trip. "He had legitimate excuses.

"The Sunshine Millions gave us the piece of mind that he could still compete. If the Lava Man we saw at Hollywood last year is still there, needless to say, we'll be fighting down the lane."

Saturday, the Kenlys and Wood will have 50 friends and family in attendance. They will pack the winner's circle with raucous cheers if Lava Man wins.

"We're lucky to be part of his career," Kenly said. "If he keeps going like this, he could be one of the greatest claims of all time."

A win on Saturday, and the first-place purse of $600,000 that goes with it, would do a lot to support that argument.