03/01/2007 12:00AM

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Lava Man

ARCADIA, Calif. - Lava Man has set the standard of excellence in California's older-horse division in the last two years. In his last 11 starts on the circuit, he has won 10 stakes.

In 2006, he became the first horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year.

More glory awaits Lava Man should he successfully defend his title in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. A win would make Lava Man only the third two-time winner of Santa Anita's richest race. John Henry did it in 1981-82 and Milwaukee Brew most recently in 2002-03.

"To join with Milwaukee Brew and John Henry would be pretty awesome," said Doug O'Neill, Lava Man's trainer.

The 124-pound topweight, Lava Man will face several horses for the first time in the Big Cap, an element that adds intrigue to the race, run over 1o1/4 miles. Lava Man has never competed against the 2007 stakes winners Arson Squad (Strub Stakes) and Awesome Gem (San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes); expected pacesetter Ball Four; Boboman, the winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup in December; or the outsiders El Roblar or Spring at Last.

The ones he has faced - McCann's Mojave and Molengao - have not beaten him.

The Big Cap is one of five stakes on Saturday's 11-race program, which includes the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf and the $250,000 Robert Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds. The program features a $1 million-guaranteed pick six pool.

Lava Man will start from post 7, which should aid his style of stalking the pace. In the 2006 Big Cap, Lava Man was never farther than a neck from the lead, and won by three-quarters of a length over Magnum. In six subsequent stakes wins, Lava Man has not been farther than 2 1/2 lengths off the pace at any point.

In his 2007 debut in the Sunshine Millions Turf here on Jan. 27, Lava Man trailed by 2 1/2 lengths on the backstretch, moved into contention on the final turn and won by two lengths.

"He's been exceptional in his gallops," O'Neill said. "He seems to be doing as well or better as he did before in the turf race."

O'Neill considers Ball Four and McCann's Mojave, the winner of the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 27, to be Lava Man's biggest threats. Ball Four and McCann's Mojave should be near the front, and O'Neill is hoping the pace is not too quick.

"We've had most of our luck by aggressively leaving the gate, getting position, and being aggressive in the last three to 3 1/2 furlongs," O'Neill said. "My biggest concern is Ball Four and McCann's Mojave. They'll be a major factor early in the race."

O'Neill is worried that a quick pace, such as six furlongs in less than 1:11, could be a problem for Lava Man. Corey Nakatani, who has ridden Lava Man to eight stakes wins since the start of 2006, has the mount.

"If they're going in 1:09 and 4 and Corey thinks they're going in 1:11, that could do us in," O'Neill said. "You couldn't ask for a better big-time rider. Hopefully, I'm saying that on Saturday night."

Ball Four is a confirmed front-runner. Trained by Patrick Biancone, Ball Four is winless in three starts since the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park last September.

"We don't know if he can beat Lava Man, but if we don't try we won't make it," Biancone said.

Contenders such as Arson Squad (117 pounds) and Molengao (116) will benefit if a quick pace develops.

Arson Squad, a convincing winner of the Strub Stakes on Feb. 3, is making his first start at 1 1/4 miles. Trained by Bruce Headley, Arson Squad will be ridden by leading jockey Garrett Gomez.

"If we were to get going early on, that horse would be there" late, O'Neill said of Arson Squad.

Molengao won the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 4, taking the lead from Ball Four in the final strides.

Steve Specht, who trains McCann's Mojave, fears that Molengao could be a factor through the stretch. Noting that there are several horses with a front-running style, Specht said, "It could set up for Molengao."

Add the presence of closers such as El Roblar, who was third in the San Antonio; Boboman, who is making his first start on dirt; and Awesome Gem, and the Big Cap should be a truly run race - and another potential milestone in the remarkable career of Lava Man.