07/02/2007 12:00AM

Long live California's king

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is a time, and this may be it, to close the books on what a particular horse means in terms of historical significance, to end the quibbling debate, and to simply savor the rich meal he has served.

In winning his third consecutive Hollywood Gold Cup last Saturday, under circumstances that roused the hardest hearts, Lava Man secured once and for all his place among California's greatest Thoroughbred competitors. Ancient Title and Best Pal may have been better from the start. Candy Spots, Snow Chief, and Hill Rise spread their message far and wide. And it was Swaps, with no argument, who towered over them all.

But in terms of stubborn consistency, on home ground mixed with familiar sights and smells, Lava Man has few peers. His adamant refusal on Saturday to allow a tricky combination of pace, surface, and weight spread get in his way in the 68th running of the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup added another layer to a legend that is now 25 months running.

During this stretch - a virtual eternity in modern racing - Lava Man has won 13 of 15 California starts. He might have been 15 for 15, too, were he not ridden into the ground in the 2005 Pacific Classic (he was beaten only three-quarters of a length), or had he not come upon the emerging grass star After Market, trained by John Shirreffs, in the more recent Whittingham Memorial.

It was Shirreffs again last Saturday who provided Lava Man with an opponent ripe for surprise. A.P. Xcellent is a 4-year-old colt owned by Stan Fulton who is just now living up to his $750,000 yearling price, perhaps due, in part, to the contradictory messages sent by his ever-quarreling grandsires, Seattle Slew and Exceller. Whatever signals A.P. Xcellent was channeling from his genetic code, he was coming off a game third in the Californian and looked the part of a good horse going to the post for the Gold Cup.

"He does look good," agreed Shirreffs as he eyed the field from the rail. "And he's been doing great. But once the gate opens, it's a whole different game."

It is a game played to near perfection by Lava Man and his regular companion, Corey Nakatani. They have been together now since November 2005, when Lava Man tore through the sole of his foot on the rough sand during the Japan Cup Dirt. Since recovering from that blood-splattered trauma, they have won 10 of 13 as a team.

For the Gold Cup, Nakatani and Lava Man had to deal with A.P. Xcellent and Mike Smith on a free-wheeling lead, including an opening half of 48.75 seconds while getting an eight-pound advantage in the weights. It was also Lava Man's first race over Hollywood's synthetic surface.

"That didn't concern me as much as the pace," Nakatani said. "I had a feeling, as loose as the track was, horses weren't going to be changing positions too much. So I basically had to make it a two-horse race, and put him in a position to strike."

There was a point, in midstretch, when it appeared as if A.P. Xcellent would outduel Lava Man on his own terms. Then, in the shadow of the wire, Lava Man's nose went down when it counted most.

"What a gallant effort, for both horses," Smith said. "They really duked it out, like the last round, really throwing it down. My horse fought back so hard you could almost hear him grunting. But that Lava Man, what a tough old dude. When a horse digs in like mine, usually that outside horse will fold a little, and that's what I needed him to do. But he didn't do it. Lava Man ended up wearing me down at the end."

In winning his third Gold Cup, Lava Man mirrored the achievement of Hall of Famer Native Diver, from 1965 to 1967. And like Native Diver, who lost his only start outside California, Lava Man never was meant to travel. Failures in Tokyo, Miami, New York, Louisville, and Dubai have discouraged further ambitions, although the fact continues to mystify his connections - trainer Doug O'Neill and owners Steve, Tracy, and Dave Kenly and Jason Wood - to the point of preoccupation.

"That is very hard to understand," said Leandro Mora, O'Neill's chief assistant, who did the honors for the Gold Cup while his boss was out of town. "I have traveled with him. He has been happy and trained good. So I don't know. But you know, good horses are welcome to come to Lava Man instead of us chasing them every time."

Mora may have something. Think you've got a good horse, a real good horse? Let him fly west and try to beat Lava Man, dirt or turf, any time of year. Lava Man might not be a national hero, but he's a monster in his own cave, and to get to races like the Santa Anita Handicap, the Pacific Classic, and the Hollywood Gold Cup, you've got to go through him.

"The fans out here, cheering him on, it just takes your breath away," said co-owner Jason Wood, as Saturday's race began to sink in. "We're fortunate enough to be a part of it. But even if we weren't, we would appreciate it, because we would be one of those fans."