12/03/2009 1:00AM

Lava Man's comeback set, knock on wood

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is nothing to gain. You people are greedy. The horse has done enough.

That was the tone of the e-mails trainer Doug O'Neill read in September, when it was announced that Lava Man, the 8-year-old seven-time Grade 1 winner, was back in training after a 14-month retirement. The anger in those messages caught O'Neill by surprise.

"I got e-mails from people that didn't know me saying how greedy I am," O'Neill said on a recent weekend morning at his Hollywood Park stable.

Now O'Neill has to prove them wrong and show that Lava Man remains capable of running at the highest level, and that the innovative stem cell procedure conducted on his ankles over the last year has helped restore soundness to a gelding who became a fan favorite with his major stakes wins from 2005-07.

Lava Man is scheduled to make his comeback in the Grade 3, $100,000 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 12. A 1 1/8-mile race, the Native Diver is the first race of a campaign that O'Neill and the owners - Jason Wood and Steve, Dave, and Tracy Kenly - say they hope will include races such as the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Classic on Jan. 30 and the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap in March.

Along the way, the skeptics will be ready to pounce if Lava Man runs a bad race. O'Neill said he is bracing for that. He admits he will get little sleep the night before the Native Diver.

"It will be nerve-racking, to say the least," O'Neill said. "I'll worry about his safety. I've got to have faith in science. He's a science experiment."

After the announcement of his retirement in July 2008, Lava Man was sent to Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, Calif., for a rest. Farm manager Tom Hudson quickly informed O'Neill that he had a bored horse in a pasture.

"Tom had him turned out, and he said he looked depressed," O'Neill said.

Last fall, Dr. Doug Herthel of the Alamo Pintado Equine Clinic in Los Olivos, Calif., proposed that Lava Man undergo a stem-cell procedure, in which cells that can promote healing and regenerate healthy tissue would be extracted from the horse's bone marrow and injected into another area of the body, in this case his ankle, to regenerate cartilage.

In the first half of this year, Herthel repeatedly told O'Neill that Lava Man was thriving with the treatment and had responded favorably while in light training.

"Initially, the intention was to make him a healthier animal in retirement," co-owner Jason Wood said.

O'Neill remained guarded about racing and was skeptical about putting Lava Man back into full training.

"We - the owners and I - at no time twisted the people up at the clinic, saying that we wanted him as a racehorse," O'Neill said. "They said he looked great. I kept putting it off. I didn't want to go there. All there was was negative possibility.

"Part of the study was he had to be in training," he said. "There was a monthly harvest of stem cells into his ankles. It's really an expensive process. Hopefully, one day, it will be where everyone can afford it. It gives a horse another lease on a racing career."

After time, O'Neill relented and inspected Lava Man. A decision was made to put him back in training in September, after the Del Mar meeting ended.

When word got out, Wood heard from critics as close as family members.

"It was definitely a mixed bag," he said. "I got e-mails saying, 'I understand he needs to do something, but why not a show horse?'"

Lava Man had his first workout in late September and had three more before Herthel requested Lava Man be sent back to Alamo Pintado for tests in late October. The veterinarian and trainer wanted first-hand updates.

"For my peace of mind, I wanted to send him up there and go through a battery of tests," O'Neill said.

Herthel visited Lava Man at Hollywood in November and was content with his progress, O'Neill said.

"Dr. Herthel came down to look at him and see if he needed another stem cell treatment," O'Neill said. "He was smiling. He didn't think he needed it."

O'Neill contemplated an allowance race for Lava Man's comeback but opted for the Native Diver. Annually, the Native Diver is one of the weaker distance handicaps for older horses, which gives O'Neill even more confidence that Lava Man can run a respectable race. Joel Rosario will ride Lava Man for the first time in the Native Diver.

"He's a racehorse and a sound racehorse," O'Neill said. "I can't believe he's back. He's as good as he's ever been."

O'Neill will admit that such a statement says a lot about a horse such as Lava Man.

"His stride is there, and his determination is there," O'Neill said. "He has that high cruising speed that put him above the average horse."

Those impressions have soothed O'Neill's concern about returning Lava Man to racing.

"If he had gone to another barn and I heard how good he was, I'd be skeptical," he said. "But I'm seeing it in front of me."

In a further attempt to assuage his critics, O'Neill said he is donating his 10 percent trainer's share of any purse earnings to the California Retirement Management Account, which finances retirement facilities for ex-racehorses in the state.

If Lava Man succeeds in stakes, the donation could rise quickly. O'Neill could wind up with a much-needed major stakes winner in his barn, which has shrunk from more than 100 horses in Southern California to 60 during the current recession.

"We need another big horse," he said.

The new big horse could be the old big horse.