03/06/2006 1:00AM

Lava Man's aura infectious


ARCADIA, Calif. - Dennis O'Neill, tall and lean, his shoulders hunched inside a loose green sweatshirt, was standing on the sloping bank of the main track, just outside the Santa Anita winner's circle, enjoying a view that included trainer Doug O'Neill, assistant trainer Leandro Mora, jockey Corey Nakatani, Santa Anita Handicap winner Lava Man, and a garland of victory flowers. A crowd of nearly 50,000 was bearing loud witness from the stands.

"He is an unbelievable animal," said Dennis O'Neill, who serves his brother as stable adviser, road manager, and confidante. "Absolutely unbelievable. I've never seen a horse in my life try so hard as this horse. Watch him when he comes out of the winner's circle. He'll look like he's about to fall over. He gives everything he has."

That, in a phrase, is exactly the price any horse should pay for winning a race like the Santa Anita Handicap. It should never be easy, never be a romp, although a few truly great animals - Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Ack Ack - have won it with something to spare.

Lava Man will never be listed in such company. That was never his intention. Modest to a fault, almost apologetic, he has become the greatest West Coast overachiever since the heyday of Budroyale, and one of a scant handful of former claimers - Seabiscuit chief among them - to have won California's most historic event.

"This horse is my hero," said Mora. "And I'm talking from way, way back. The bravest horse I've ever seen."

Mora should know. He was there at O'Neill's Del Mar barn on the day Lava Man was claimed - it was a Friday the 13th - during the summer of 2004. The tag was $50,000 and the expectations of his new owners were realistically small. It would be nice to win the Pomona Derby at Fairplex Park. They had to settle for the Pomona Derby Trial instead.

In those days, the gelded Lava Man was still acting coltish, to the detriment of his performance on the track. Good races alternated with poor. Blinkers were introduced and he began to mature, smoothing the edges as he aged into his 4-year-old campaign. Doug O'Neill aimed high and scored, winning the Californian and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

The story almost ended in New York, however, and then Tokyo, where an incipient hoof problem (left fore) exploded into a full-blown crisis after terrible races in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Japan Cup Dirt. Mora still recalls the Japan ordeal with a bitter taste.

"That's when he lost the whole frog," he said, referring to the layer of callus protecting the sole. "He was just starting to make his move. Can you imagine how much it must have burned, on a track so sandy as that? To give you an idea of how bad it was, from the grandstand to the barn it is a good mile, maybe mile and a half. He bled all the way back, leaving a trail of blood."

It took a solid month to get Lava Man's foot healthy enough to stand a light breeze. By late January, he was just fit enough to dispatch a drab bunch in the Sunshine Millions Classic. In the 35 days between the Millions and the Santa Anita Handicap, Lava Man worked only twice, a pattern that is rapidly becoming an O'Neill trademark.

To his credit, O'Neill has never pretended to be a natural horseman, sprung wholly formed from the loins of some third-generation trainer. He does, however, admit to cherry-picking what seemed to be the most sensible ideas from his variety of early employers, whether it be the obsession to detail learned from working with Richard Mandella's second string, to the concept of galloping a horse to fitness gleaned from his time with the late Doug Peterson.

"Doug was adamant, and it stuck with me, about letting a horse gallop a mile and a quarter, mile and a half, but at their clip," O'Neill noted. "Basically, you tell the rider to let them put their feet where they want to put them and don't move your hands. You can keep them fit that way without really drilling them hard.

"A guy who I've never gotten to know very well, but have admired from afar, is Warren Stute," O'Neill went on, referring to the 84-year-old West Coast legend. "His horses religiously run consistently well off good, strong gallops and slow, long works. Those are the models I think of - Doug and Warren - when I'm doing my training charts."

It is probably no coincidence, then, that Lava Man is a grandson of Seattle Slew, who was trained as a 4-year-old by Peterson, or that he is galloped daily by the first-class exercise rider Tony Romero, who put in a lot of years with Stute. And then there is the pervasive influence of Mora, honed by his long stint with the consummate horseman Brian Mayberry. The assistant trainer proudly answers to the same "L.M." monogram as the 2006 Santa Anita Handicap winner.

After a year that had started out a bummer for the O'Neill stable - first with Dennis's diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, followed closely by the ankle injury that knocked champion Stevie Wonderboy out of the Derby picture - a horse like Lava Man, brave to a fault, tends to raise hopes and defy bad spirits. That is exactly what Dennis O'Neill was thinking as Lava Man entered the winner's circle last Saturday afternoon.

"That may do it," he said with a smile. "I think I just found a cure for cancer."