02/08/2008 1:00AM

Lava Man targets unprecedented feat

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ARCADIA, Calif. – When Lava Man makes his expected return to racing this spring after a layoff of nearly six months, he will begin a campaign that could lead to an unprecedented fourth consecutive title as outstanding California-bred older male.

Last week, as Lava Man returned to trainer Doug O’Neill’s stable at Hollywood Park, he was named the champion California-bred older male of 2007, a title he won in 2005 and 2006. He joins Ancient Title (1974-76) and Best Pal (1992, 1994-95) as three-time winners. In addition, Lava Man is a finalist for the horse of the year title, along with the champion sprinter Idiot Proof and the outstanding older female Nashoba’s Key.

Lava Man won the California-bred horse of the year title in 2005-06. The only three-time winners of that award are Snow Chief (1985-87) and Best Pal (1990-92). The award will be announced at the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association’s awards dinner in Pasadena on Feb. 18. CTBA members vote on the year-end champions.

Lava Man has not started since finishing sixth in the California Cup Classic on Nov. 3. The loss was his third straight, a disappointing end to an otherwise outstanding campaign. Early in the year, Lava Man successfully defended his title in the Santa Anita Handicap and won a record-equaling third Hollywood Gold Cup in June. But as the year progressed, his form tailed off and he was sent to a local farm for a break in the fall.

O’Neill said that Lava Man has shown signs of enthusiasm since returning to the stable.

“He looks fantastic,” O’Neill said. “I’m very happy with the time off, what it’s done for him. We’re seeing all the signs of a champion Thoroughbred on the comeback trail.”

Owned by the Kenly family’s STD Racing and Jason Wood, Lava Man is expected to return to racing at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. The long-term goal is the Hollywood Gold Cup, with a possible start to the campaign in the Khaled Stakes for statebreds on turf in late April. Lava Man won the 2006 Khaled.

“That’s got our name written all over it,” O’Neill said. “We’ve been lucky, with other horses, of using a grass route as a prep. That might weigh into it. I’d definitely say Santa Anita is out.”

The six horses that accounted for the eight divisional titles are expected to race again this year.

Georgie Boy, the champion 2-year-old male, starts in Sunday’s $150,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita.

Spring Awakening, the champion 2-year-old filly, and Romance Is Diane, the champion 3-year-old filly, have been turned out for the winter, with plans to return at Hollywood Park in the summer, according to Mike Mitchell, who trains both fillies.

Idiot Proof, who was also named champion 3-year-old male, will start in the Phoenix Gold Cup at Turf Paradise next weekend.

Nashoba’s Key, also named champion turf horse, is being considered for the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap at Santa Anita in March.

At the Feb. 18 ceremony, three breeder awards will be presented to Marty and Pam Wygod, who own River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif. Their stallion Bertrando led the general progeny earnings list, while Tribal Rule was the leading sire of 2-year-olds by earnings. The Wygods were leading breeders in money earned.

In other awards, Ed Moger Jr. will be honored as outstanding trainer, the stallion Decarchy will be recognized as leading freshman sire, and the stallion Swiss Yodeler will be honored as the sire of the most winners.

The CTBA’s Hall of Fame will induct breeder John Harris, trainer Mel Stute, jockey Russell Baze, and the champions Flying Paster and Decidedly.