02/20/2007 1:00AM

New challenger on horizon


In 2006 California-bred Lava Man swept the four richest races for older horses on the Southern California racing calendar - the Sunshine Millions Classic, Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.

On March 3, the now 6-year-old gelding will be back in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita's signature race for older horses, as a probable heavy favorite.

As the star of this prestigious 10-furlong handicap event, Lava Man is sure to be assigned several more pounds than the 120 he carried to win last year's Big Cap, even though the prevailing tendency in contemporary handicap races is to treat star horses with relatively modest weight assignments. A quarter century ago, Lava Man probably would have been assigned 129 or 130 pounds; this time around 125 or so seems more likely.

Indeed, in his most recent outing, in the restricted $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf, the son of Slew City Slew carried a modest 122 pounds to a facile win over a borderline Grade 3-type lineup that lacked another Grade 1 winner.

Lava Man will be seeking to become only the third horse ever to win the Big Cap twice since the track opened in 1935, and the two who have already done it did it in successive years: John Henry in 1981 and '82; Milwaukee Brew in 2002 and '03.

That is only a partial list of the outstanding older horses who have won the Big Cap. Among the talented winners were eight Hall of Famers: Seabiscuit, who was second twice before he won it in 1940; Round Table the '58 winner; Ack Ack, the 1971 winner; Cougar II, who finished second twice before he won it in 1973; Affirmed, who won it in '79; Spectacular Bid, in '80; John Henry; and Alysheba, in 1988.

While this year's Big Cap probables may not remind anyone of such accomplished horses, a $1 million race at 1 1/4 miles can be a demanding test for horses and handicappers. The probables include the stretch-running graded turf winner Boboman and longshot El Roblar, plus Arson Squad, Spring at Last, Brother Derek, and Midnight Lute, the top four finishers in the hard-fought Strub Stakes, a Grade 2 race restricted to 4-year-olds.

But, from what was observed at the current Santa Anita meet, there may be a more serious upset threat, the late developing Brazilian import Molengao, who won the San Antonio Handicap with a strong late surge to catch the speedy and tenacious Ball Four, a likely pace contender in the Santa Anita Handicap.

While Lava Man certainly commands respect and is unlikely to be burdened with an historic weight assignment, very few horses through the years have won this race by chasing or making the pace, which is Lava Man's preferred style at this distance. Moreover, Molengao, 6 years old, earned a better Beyer Speed Figure in the San Antonio (106) than Arson Squad in the Strub (104), and would not be the first late-developing, natural router to win the Big Cap. Others were Lava Man himself, along with the 5- and 6-year-olds Milwaukee Brew, Malek, Siphon, and Urgent Request, all Big Cap winners in the past dozen years.

With at least three likely speed types expected to compete - Ball Four, the familiar Brother Derek, and the rejuvenated McCann's Mojave, winner of the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park Jan. 27 - the pace of this Big Cap should be taxing. That, along with Molengao's improving form, makes him a potential value play as the favorite's most formidable late threat at a classic distance.

On the opposite coast, the $350,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap will be run on the same day, as older horses have bi-coastal moments in the spotlight while the glamour 3-year-olds prepare to move front and center to dominate the long, winding road through the Triple Crown chase.

Unfortunately, the Gulfstream Park Handicap will not include 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor, the 5-year-old Argentine-bred, owned by the Shadwell Stable of Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum. Invasor powerfully won the Donn Handicap on Feb. 3 despite serious traffic issues. Should anyone harbor doubts that Invasor is a Hall of Fame-class racehorse, I would recommend careful review of the tapes of that race combined with an examination of Invasor's excellent 2006 campaign, which included four Grade 1 victories in America after he was defeated in the United Arab Emirates Derby by Discreet Cat. Fact is, Invasor has only lost that one race in 11 career starts on three continents, and is headed to Dubai to race against Godolphin's Discreet Cat in the $6 million Dubai World Cup March 31. Obviously, this high-profile rematch between Invasor and Discreet Cat promises to overshadow the importance of both the Gulfstream Park Handicap and the Santa Anita Handicap.

Nevertheless, the Gulfstream Park Handicap may be just the forum to validate the potential of an emerging world-class talent, the little-known Corinthian, who returned from a year's absence with an indelible performance in a Gulfstream allowance race on Feb. 8.

Facing Invasor's 4-year-old stablemate Jazil, whose noted stretch kick enabled him to win the 2006 Belmont Stakes, Corinthian pressed the pace for six furlongs and effortlessly pulled away from Jazil for a 9 1/2-length victory after Jazil had made what appeared to be a winning move from the back of the pack.

The disqualified winner of the 2006 Fountain of Youth Stakes, Corinthian had been judiciously handled by trainer Jimmy Jerkens through assorted physical setbacks, and the extra care appears to have paid off big time.

Consider this: In his allowance race win, Corninthian finished his final five furlongs in 59.25, unusually fast for a nine-furlong race, and as such, he displayed world-class bursts of sustained finishing speed clocked in 23.98, 23.85 and 12.48!

In addition to Jazil, threats to Corinthian may include Chatain, who won the Hal's Hope Handicap over the track before he was a fair fourth to Invasor in the Donn; Hesanoldsalt and A.P. Arrow, second and third in the Donn; and Magna Graduate who won his seasonal finale at Aqueduct in December but tired badly in the Donn.

None of the horses named above have run a race as strong as Corinthian's Fountain of Youth in 2006, or his allowance win over Jazil this season. While there are no iron-clad cinches in this game, Corinthian probably only needs to remain 100 percent healthy for the first time in more than a year to leave Florida with his first official stakes victory and credentials to challenge Invasor and Discreet Cat or Lava Man somewhere down the road.