03/05/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man uses his versatility to win

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ARCADIA, Calif. – It took a different sort of performance for Lava Man to defend his title in Saturday’s $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

Unlike his win in the 2006 Pacific Classic, Lava Man did not pull away quickly on the final turn, leaving his rivals hopelessly beaten. And unlike his win in the 2006 Big Cap, Lava Man did not duel for the lead throughout.

On Saturday, the Big Cap unfolded largely void of pace, and with a stretch run that left several contenders with a chance a furlong from the finish. In the end, they were just pretenders to Lava Man’s status as the leading older horse in California.

Lava Man ($3.20) won by three-quarters of a length over Molengao, finishing 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.11. The 124-pound topweight, Lava Man became the third horse to win consecutive runnings of the Big Cap, joining John Henry (1981-82) and Milwaukee Brew (2002-03).

To reach that milestone, jockey Corey Nakatani opted for a patient approach. Instead of asking Lava Man to challenge for the lead, Nakatani kept the 6-year-old gelding in third for the first six furlongs, behind a slow pace of 24.06 and 48.27 seconds set by Ball Four.

Trailing by a length after six furlongs, Lava Man was within a neck of Ball Four after a mile and rallied wide to lead in early stretch. At that point, Spring at Last, Ball Four, McCann’s Mojave, and Molengao were still within three lengths of the lead. Only Molengao offered a late threat.

“It was run like a turf race, and we know he’s versatile,” said winning trainer Doug O’Neill.

A winner of 16 of 37 starts and $4,679,706, Lava Man returned to the winner’s circle to a rousing ovation from the ontrack crowd of 43,024. He is owned by the Kenly family’s STD Racing and Jason Wood, who claimed him for $50,000 in August 2004. Lava Man has won 11 stakes in his last 12 starts on this circuit.

Molengao, who won the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 4, finished 1 1/2 lengths in front of Boboman, the winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup in December, who was making his first start on dirt.

Trainer Paulo Lobo said Molengao’s runner-up finish was “equal to winning the race. I’m very thrilled.”

In a major stakes in California, that may be all anyone can expect to achieve against Lava Man.

Robert Lewis: Great Hunter scores in comeback

After four months on the sidelines, Great Hunter returned to the races with a perfect comeback on Saturday at Santa Anita, scoring a 1 1/4-length victory in the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes and looking as though there was plenty in reserve.

Great Hunter ($3.80) dispatched his eight 3-year-old rivals with ease, despite a stubborn bid from Sam P. to deny him the win. More impressive, though, was the way Great Hunter galloped out, as though he was just getting warmed up going the 1 1/16 miles of the Lewis.

“The goal is the first Saturday in May,” owner Paul Reddam said, referring to the Kentucky Derby, “but it’s nice to win anyway.”

Under Corey Nakatani, Great Hunter completed the distance in 1:42.89 on the fast main track. Sam P., who shipped in from Florida, finished 2 1/4 lengths in front of third-place Saint Paul, who set the early pace.Great Hunter remained near the rear of the pack down the backstretch, but as the field advanced around the far turn he quickly reached contention.

Great Hunter, a colt by Aptitude, had not raced since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Last fall, he won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland likely will make his next start – and have his final prep for the Derby – in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14, trainer Doug O’Neill said.

Kilroe: Kip Deville stands out

Kip Deville won his first Grade 1 stakes in Saturday’s $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile, which included seven runners who had won graded stakes in 2006. Dismissed at 9-1, Kip Deville pulled an upset under jockey Richard Migliore, finishing a mile in 1:33.88 and winning by a neck over Bayeux. Silent Name was a nose behind Bayeux in the field of 12.

Kip Deville ($20.20), trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., rallied three wide in early stretch and took the lead from Silent Name in the final sixteenth. Charmo, the 3-1 favorite, finished seventh. Kip Deville was fully extended to hold off a late threat from Bayeux.

* Passified pulled an upset in the $96,850 China Doll Stakes, holding off Hucking Hot to win by a head. Hucking Hot finished a nose in front of Gotta Have Her. Passified ($49.20), ridden by Mike Smith for trainer Jim Cassidy, finished a mile on turf in 1:34.88.

* Indian Flare ($7.20) won the $94,450 Flower Girl Handicap on the hillside turf course. Ridden by David Flores for trainer Bobby Frankel, Indian Flare ran about 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:12.28. She finished three-quarters of a length in front of Forest Code, who finished a half-length in front of Mighty Clever.

– additional reporting by Jay Privman