03/23/2007 12:00AM

Nothing to lose for Lava Man in Dubai try


PHOENIX - There is all kinds of hand-wringing over Lava Man heading off to Dubai for the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, a 1 1/8-mile turf race, which routinely attracts some of the best middle-distance turf horses in the world. No doubt Lava Man belongs on the short list of such horses, but, as many have asked, does he belong in Dubai?

We all know how Lava Man has been a bit of Jekyll and Hyde - a monster in California, less intimidating on the road. I, for one, didn't really buy it - until the last Breeders' Cup Classic. I believe circumstances worked against him in many of those other previous trips, but I can't say that about his seventh-place finish against Invasor and company in the Classic. He apparently is simply better at home, and he's not the first big horse to be that way. For example, Sky Beauty was nearly unbeatable in New York, but vulnerable elsewhere.

That's why many are criticizing this venture to Dubai. Not only is Lava Man being sent on the road, but also the stress of the trip could sideline him for a considerable time.

But I still like the idea of it. His reputation is established no matter what happens in Dubai. He's the greatest claim of all time and a throwback to two-surface stars like John Henry.

Many complain that the modern horse doesn't race enough and retires too soon. And now a horse like Lava Man, still going strong at 6, is going to travel thousands of miles to take on the best turf runners in the world - and people say his connections are making a mistake.

He's already made history in Southern California, becoming the first horse to sweep the circuit's top three races for older horses in 2006 (the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic), and he's a Grade 1 winner on turf. If a horse in New York had won the Suburban, Whitney, and Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Man o' War they would have a parade for him.

For Lava Man to win the three big California races again this year would be nice, but to go to Dubai and beat the best in the world - and to exorcise his traveling demons - now that would be something.

If he goes and fails, so what? We knock owners and trainers for being too cautious, so when someone's connections decide to reach for the stars, why not applaud them?

Rags to Riches vs. males?

There is much excitement surrounding trainer Todd Pletcher's sensational 3-year-old filly Rags to Riches, and rightly so. Her Grade 1 Las Virgenes win was remarkable considering her ridiculously wide trip, and her Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks performance was noteworthy because of the ease of the victory. After the Oaks, her connections - Pletcher and owners Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor - mentioned the possibility that she might take on the boys. That seems more plausible now that Kentucky Derby hopeful Ravel, also owned by Smith and Tabor and trained by Pletcher, was injured earlier this week.

But I don't think it's a good idea. To run a filly against the males, in a field of 20, where there's going to be bumping and jostling, is asking for trouble. Unless the filly is a monster, like Winning Colors (who ran on the lead, away from trouble), she will take the worst of it. As a result, she could be cooked by the first Sunday in May.

I like the suggestion made by Jon White, an HRTV analyst. White's idea is to run Rags to Riches on the traditional 3-year-old filly path, the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland next month and then the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby. Then, providing everything goes according to plan, take your swing at the boys in the Belmont.

Rags to Riches is seemingly bred specifically for that race. Her sire, A. P. Indy, won the Belmont in 1992 and her brother Jazil won it last year. Field size won't be an issue, the big track at Belmont Park gives her room to maneuver, and she might be getting a shot at a bunch of males who might be softened up by the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

And staying with the fillies doesn't ensure her dominance. Anyone who saw Magnificience's Arazi-like maiden win at Santa Anita last week saw a budding star, and a filly who may well be ready to take on Rags to Riches down the road.