07/18/2008 12:00AM

Lava Man's jail time not so bad


DEL MAR, Calif. - Lava Man was lounging in a corner of the Del Mar backstretch, sequestered from his usual stablemates just across the road. The walls of his prefab stall still had that new-plywood smell. There was thick padding and soft bedding, a canopy providing shade from the summer sun, and just across the way he could stare into the baleful brown eyes of his pal, the pony named Charlie.

As lockdowns go, it wasn't a bad deal at all. More white collar than Devil's Island. And who could argue? Lava Man is Lava Man, one of the most popular West Coast runners of all time, and ready to get back in a winning groove on Sunday at Del Mar in the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap. Certainly, a little consideration is not out of line.

At least, so goes the weird, serpentine thinking in the latest manifestation of California's evolving equine medication policies regarding surveillance, control, and penalties.

Lava Man has spent the week in the Del Mar Protection Barn (formerly known as the Detention Barn), created to isolate the entered horses of trainers who are being held responsible for a blood gas test (TCO2) that exceeds a certain limit, as established by the California Horse Racing Board.

The thing is, there is no CHRB rule requiring a 24-hour isolation facility with round-the-clock security for the runners of trainers charged with a high TCO2 count. That, in fact, is a procedure adopted and enforced by racetracks in cooperation with the Thoroughbred Owners of California. The official CHRB finding on trainer Doug O'Neill's high TCO2 test - from a horse who ran last January - is still being challenged, which means there is always a chance it could be dismissed.

Del Mar president Joe Harper said O'Neill made no special request to accommodate Lava Man, who is notoriously bad about shipping away from his home stall. Harper said he recognized this fact and simply allowed Lava Man to begin his incarceration a few days early, when he arrived from Hollywood Park. The good news for Lava Man fans is that the last time he ran out of a detention barn, when O'Neill was fighting his only other TCO2 test, he won the 2006 Hollywood Gold Cup.

The bad news is that the messages are woefully mixed. If the 24-hour isolation setup is supposed to discourage trainers from pushing the limits of bicarb loading, why make any concessions at all? Furthermore, wouldn't it be a good idea to wait until the CHRB has completed its prosecution of a high test and imposed its fines and/or suspensions? Does a TCO2 test rise to the level of being arraigned for a crime and then bail denied?

Harper, obviously, thought he was doing the right thing.

"I don't think you can say it's an advantage for him to be in the protection barn, even in his case if it's a few days early," Harper said. "Although I suppose I could take away his shade."

Three-year-olds and the Mig move on

California's division of 3-year-olds could use a complete makeover. None of them was heard from during the Triple Crown season, and the Swaps Stakes last weekend at Hollywood Park ended up an uninspiring four-horse exercise in lowered expectations. Colonel John was obviously a cut below his best. The promising Two Step Salsa may have distance limitations. And victorious Tres Borrachos was snapping a six-race losing streak.

The page might be turning at just the right time. In terms of serious prize money, the rest of the California season for 3-year-olds is turf only. So here's hoping that the results of the two divisions of the Oceanside Stakes on opening day will lay the groundwork for some exciting sport to come.

The English gelding Kilderry beat Moral Compass a nose in the first division of this year's Oceanside, with Jungle Wave a game third a half-length back. Roll that one again and it could come out a whole different result. Then, in the second half of the race, Dixie Chatter finally came through with the stakes-class performance expected of him ever since his victory in the 2007 Norfolk Stakes.

Richard Migliore has been aboard the Richard Mandella colt for the long haul, which included two uninspiring tries over the synthetic man track at Hollywood Park.

"In his main-track races, you can be riding him and feeling like you could win by as many as you want to," Migliore said. "Then he kind of goes one-paced and doesn't finish the deal. Good turf horses sometimes work like that. They travel so well in the bridle you always feel like there's more and more, but that's really all there is."

Migliore let Dixie Chatter roll along on a modest pace (1:12.49 compared to 1:11:25 in the first division), and the colt loved it.

"He was definitely waiting on horses, but every time something came to him he had an answer," Migliore said. "As long as he could see the competition, nobody was going to get by him. To a certain degree, I think that's always going to be him."

After 21 months as an honorary Californian, Migliore is being pulled back to his New York roots because of family concerns. He heads to Saratoga after Monday's card.

"I love it in California," said Migliore, who won the 2007 Pacific Classic aboard Student Council. "To say I have second thoughts is an understatement. But I'm following my heart instead of my head."