08/18/2006 12:00AM

Lucky for Lava Man, front's the place to be

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Preachinatthebar, winning the Tokyo City Cup, has shown good early speed in his last two starts.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Will Lava Man be the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Del Mar's Pacific Classic?

He is already two-thirds of the way there. Lava Man won the Santa Anita Handicap by three-quarters of a length on March 4. He was fortunate to prevail by a nose in the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 8. Lava Man is unbeaten in five starts this year, including three Grade 1 stakes, while racking up more than $1.8 million in purse money.

There is another reason to like Lava Man. A check of the recent track bias trends on the dirt at Del Mar suggests that his early and tactical speed will be an advantage. During the seven racing days from Aug. 10 through Aug. 17, there were 45 races run on the main track. Ten of them were won by the first-call leader. Another 10 races were won by the horse who was second at that point. Combined, those 20 horses won 44 percent of the 45 races. How did the closers who were last or next-to-last at the first call fare? They scored just seven times, a 15 percent rate.

Even with good form and the right running style, Lava Man is not a sure thing in the Pacific Classic. Bettors who hammered him down to 3-5 odds when he faced just four rivals in the Hollywood Gold Cup had a right to expect a more comfortable triumph. He figures to be a small price once again in the Pacific Classic, and other contenders should be competitive.

Let's start by tossing a few of them. If you see that horses with early and tactical speed continue to hold an advantage on the dirt as Sunday's card unfolds, you should try to beat the closers in the Pacific Classic. Giacomo was up in time to edge Preachinatthebar in the San Diego Handicap and will probably enjoy solid betting support. He was second-to-last at the first call in each of his last three races, however, and will be at a disadvantage. Perfect Drift was in the rear-half of the pack at the first call in each of his last five races. Top This and That, who faces a difficult assignment regardless of the pace scenario, will find his task even tougher because of his late-running style. Good Reward figures to be no closer than mid-pack and might very well be a closer.

Among the contenders who remain, Preachinatthebar is interesting based on the early and tactical speed he showed in his last two races. The catch is that he will have to continue to improve to handle the jump into Grade 1 company. If he does take another step forward, and if he and Lava Man set a sensible pace, they could be the exacta. Magnum showed improved early foot last time, and he owns good Beyer Speed Figure. The improving Super Frolic showed more tactical speed last year than he did in his recent races, and he is capable of being up close early if he is asked to be. I will use those three for first and second with Lava Man in the exacta.

The seven-furlong Pat O'Brien should also be viewed with an eye toward the running styles of the contenders. Siren Lure won his last two races, the Grade 3 Los Angeles Handicap and the Grade 1 Triple Bend, and owns the best recent Beyers. However, he is usually a closer. I will see if I can beat him at modest odds.

Declan's Moon is appealing, with five career wins from six starts. He lost by a nose in his return from a 16-month layoff, in a $100,000 optional claiming race July 16. He was up close to a fast pace in that race and figures to be on or close to the lead today. That is the good news. The catch is that he earned only a 96 Beyer in that race, and improvement will be required. That improvement is certainly possible, but it isn't a slam dunk, depending on how much that hard-fought race took out of him. Low odds won't be a bargain.

Battle Won didn't show as much early speed as usual last time, but if he runs a more typical race today he should be up close during the early going. He finished second behind Siren Lure in the Triple Bend and was only a half-length behind Pure as Gold in the Bing Crosby. I will hope that a return to his usual tactics will give him a narrow edge.

Following his 23-1 upset win in the Bing Crosby, Pure Gold will be a prime contender if he can avoid regression back to a more typical try. Longshot Trickey Trevor has more early speed than he showed last time. He is capable of the upset with a return to the form he showed three and four races ago, at Churchill and Bay Meadows.