08/16/2007 11:00PM

Many ways to go against Lava Man


LEXINGTON, Ky. - There are a few interesting stakes races on Sunday at Del Mar and Emerald Downs.

First is the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Lava Man narrowly avoided extending his losing streak to three races when he prevailed by a nose over A.P. Xcellent in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He has been versatile - 10 wins on the dirt, 6 on turf, and 1 on Cushion Track, which came in the Gold Cup in his first race on a synthetic surface.

Although we can only guess about how he will fare on Polytrack, I believe Lava Man has earned the benefit of the doubt as he makes his first start on that surface. He is the horse to beat in the 1 1/4-mile Classic, but his low odds make him only mildly interesting as a betting proposition. If you are willing to make a play against him there are a number of ways to go.

A.P. Xcellent should be a serious threat. He was unlucky to finish a nose behind Lava Man in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He runs on or near the lead, and although there is some uncertainty as to how well early speed will hold going 1 1/4 miles on Polytrack, he would be very dangerous if he gets a good trip.

The concern about him is that he ran a dull race while finishing fifth of six on the turf last time, with an 84 Beyer Speed Figure. That is 10 and 12 points lower than the numbers he earned in his two previous starts on that surface. If you are concerned that A.P. Xcellent might not be ready to match his Hollywood Gold Cup performance in the Pacific Classic, you will have to dig deeper to find an attractive alternative to Lava Man.

Big Booster was an upset winner of an optional claiming race at 25-1 at Hollywood, then improved again when he finished less than a length behind Lava Man and A.P. Xcellent as a 24-1 longshot in the Gold Cup. If he continues on the upswing he could be the upsetter at a good price. That is a good enough reason to make a small- to medium-size value bet on him, but that isn't the same thing as making him your key horse in this race.

Tiago deserves a long look. This 3-year-old is going well now, with a third behind Rags to Riches and Curlin in the Belmont and a win the Grade 2 Swaps. Although he doesn't have quite as much tactical speed as I would like, he was closer than usual last time - only three lengths behind a good pace in the Swaps - so perhaps he will be able to stay within easy striking position early in the Pacific Classic.

There are a number of other contenders in the field who wouldn't have to improve much to make an impact. Longshot players are encouraged to spread out to find a key horse other than the ones discussed above, or to find contenders offering good prices in the exotics.

The race I like best on the undercard is the Pat O'Brien. Bordonaro was forced to duel early in most of his recent races, but that probably won't be the case in this race. Bordonaro should enjoy a better pace scenario and can turn the tables on Greg's Gold who finished second, 1o1/2 lengths ahead of him last time in the Bing Crosby. The other contenders in the field are closers whose backers will have to hope that Bordonaro comes back to them.

Cal invaders strong at Emerald

There are a few invaders from California who have a good chance to win the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs. Raise the Bluff is my selection. He won a hard-fought victory in the Santana Mile at Santa Anita, then followed with a nice fourth at 24-1 in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. He stayed close to the leaders, rallied to battle for the lead, and was outkicked late. That was his return from a four-month layoff and any improvement today would give him the advantage in this race.

Gotaghostofachance ran in Grade 1 races in his last two starts, at Hollywood and Del Mar. He lost by 9o1/4 lengths in the Triple Bend, and by 6 3/4 lengths in the Bing Crosby. The class drop here makes him a prime contender.

Tricky Trevor comes off a win in the six-furlong Sam J. Whiting Memorial Handicap at Pleasanton, and will probably show early speed as he stretches out.

Sinister Minister also will show speed, but must return to better form to win the race.

The locally based contenders will need their best to capitalize on their home track advantage. The Great Face has won two straight, but was facing softer company. Wasserman was an upset winner of the Governors Handicap and will need to continue to improve.