06/27/2007 12:00AM

Lava Man's form still in question

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Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Lava Man, with Corey Nakatani up, scored his last win in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Lava Man's accomplishments since his first graded stakes win in June 2005 are mind-boggling. The 6-year-old gelding has gone on to win an additional 10 stakes, including the last two runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup, the last two Santa Anita Handicaps, and the 2006 Pacific Classic. He is the undisputed leader of California's handicap division.

But there are questions about whether that dynasty is ending as Lava Man is being prepared for a shot at a record-equaling third Hollywood Gold Cup win on Saturday.

Is age beginning to catch up with him? Can he replicate the 2005 Gold Cup win, which came by a record margin of 8 3/4 lengths, or even last year's nose victory when he overcame a stumble at the start?

Lava Man's last victory came in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3, and he has lost his last two starts: a 16th-place finish in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free at Nad Al Sheba in March, and a second-place finish to After Market in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap on the Hollywood turf on June 9 in his comeback race. Last year, Lava Man won the Whittingham as a prep to the Gold Cup.

A win Saturday also would give Lava Man the distinction of being only the second three-time winner of the Gold Cup, joining Native Diver (1965-67). It would push Lava Man past $5 million in career earnings, an astonishing accomplishment for a statebred gelding claimed for $50,000 in August 2004 by the Kenly family's STD Racing, Jason Wood, and trainer Doug O'Neill.

"We still need to win one here," co-owner Steve Kenly said of Saturday's $750,000 race. "If he wins this race, it will put Dubai to rest."

Wood, for one, says Lava Man showed he had rebounded from Dubai with his performance in the Whittingham.

"I think we're in the best position that we could ask for," Wood said. "If he fires his normal effort, we would have a good shot at three-peating."

In the Whittingham, Lava Man led around the final turn and into deep stretch before After Market rallied to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Jockey Corey Nakatani did not punish Lava Man in the final sixteenth after After Market took the lead.

"He showed that huge move on the turn," Wood said. "We got beat by a better horse.

"You always have that concern coming off of travel. Is he back? He did get tired at the end of the Whittingham. I think he got a lot out of it."

Since fall 2005, Lava Man has made five starts outside of California - in New York, Japan, Florida, Kentucky, and Dubai - and failed spectacularly in each. He has truly been a Southern California boy.

In January, nearly three months after a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, Lava Man opened his 2007 season with a win in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf. He followed that with a hard-fought defense of his title in the Santa Anita Handicap, finishing three-quarters of a length in front of Molengao, his biggest threat in Saturday's Gold Cup.

O'Neill has raved about Lava Man's training since the Whittingham.

"I think he's every bit as full of energy as he has been in the last year," he said.

In his career, Lava Man has won 16 of 39 starts and earned $4,739,706. This year alone, he has earned $935,000. Even so, questions linger about his chances in the Gold Cup.

"He may be losing a step, but maybe not," Kenly said. "I don't think the screws were 100 percent tight in the Whittingham. I was definitely pleased with the effort."

A win Saturday may force Kenly to rearrange his list of favorite Lava Man performances. The current top-ranked race is Lava Man's 2005 Gold Cup.

"It was the highlight of our racing career," Kenly said. "It gave us goose bumps to watch it."

Wood, 41, and Kenly, 44, and their families will pack the Hollywood Park paddock in admiration of Lava Man on Saturday. Wood, for one, says the memories of a win would linger for months.

"So many of his accomplishments have been so surreal," Wood said. "You look at it and think, 'Did that really happen? Did he really do that?' Every time you think he can't do more, he does."