01/25/2007 12:00AM

One challenge left for Lava Man


ARCADIA, Calif. - If it didn't draw horses like Lava Man, Bordonaro, Proud Tower Too, Take D' Tour, and Sweetnorthernsaint, the Sunshine Millions would be little more than an extravagant waste of purse money that could be otherwise spent to reinforce the importance of traditional events open to all comers.

Then again, it's a helluva party, chock full of dancing girls, bikini contests, balloons, and smiling, happy people. The fields are full, Magna is flush. So why not share the wealth with owners and trainers who may never see this kind of scratch again?

Despite his abject failure to transfer his form to alien time zones, Lava Man remains the top draw on the California scene. His presence on Saturday in the half-a-million-dollar Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita Park is a concession to the fact that the million-dollar Sunshine Millions Classic on the dirt is taking place 3,000 miles away at Gulfstream Park.

Lava Man won the Classic last year when it was run at Santa Anita, then cleared everything else off the California table, led by his unprecedented single-season sweep of the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. That and a $300 seat ticket got him squat at the Eclipse Awards. But hey, it was an honor just to be nominated.

A 1 1/8-mile grass race in his own backyard would seem to be the perfect place to commence his 6-year-old campaign. At least, that's the way trainer Doug O'Neill sees it, in concert with Lava Man's principal owners, Steve Kenly and Jason Wood.

"We thought the intelligent move was to run him out of his own stall to start the year off," O'Neill said last weekend, just hours after Lava Man had worked a sharp three-quarters in company at Hollywood Park. "We've got to get his streak going again.

"The dream would be to have a similar campaign to the one we had in 2006," O'Neill went on, waxing nostalgic. "It was the time of our lives. Every time we led him over there, that burst he shows at the three-eighths pole when Corey [Nakatani] asks him, and he separates himself from the field - the thought of that will get you through any depressing rainy afternoon."

It is hard to fault O'Neill and assistant trainer Leandro Mora for their handling of Lava Man, going back to that Del Mar afternoon in August of 2004 when the California-bred gelding was claimed by Kenly and Wood for $62,500. Now 6, Lava Man has yet to display to the O'Neill crew any overt signs of aging.

About the only thing Lava Man can't do is leave town and win. And don't bother assembling another jury. The verdict is in. When Lava Man failed to fire in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last fall, with Horse of the Year on the line, it was a kick in the gut for his people. Everything in their control had gone perfectly, and still the result was the same.

There may be any number of reasons why Lava Man can't leave the comfort of his own crib. He is now 0 for 8 lifetime on the road, counting four previous ventures from northern to Southern California while trained by Lonnie Arterburn. Weather, timing, track surface, and emotional stability could all play a part, and skeptics even manage to raise the medication issue, even though Lava Man's blood is probably tested more than any California sample since Phar Lap's. Still, O'Neill needs to see one more.

"If and when we do ship out of town, it will most likely be for a grass race," O'Neill said. "There would be less question about how the course would come up, and I think it would not only give us a little more confidence, but also see a better result."

Lava Man added turf to his portfolio last summer at Hollywood with back-to-back wins in the restricted Khaled Stakes and Grade 1 Whittingham Memorial. This form has put a race like the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on the Dubai World Cup undercard in play, according to a less-than-enthusiastic O'Neill.

"There's a flicker of a dream about taking him to Dubai," the trainer confirmed. Asked what would turn the flicker into a flame, O'Neill sighed like a man asked to sell a bad idea.

"I think probably if Jason, Steve, and their wives would get pumped up about skiing in the middle of the desert," the trainer said, referring to Dubai's Disneylandish indoor mountain of artificial snow. "I know it's silly, but there is the excitement of the trip. Still, we would make sure it was in the best interests of Lava Man."

The last time Lava Man went abroad, he emerged from the 2005 Japan Cup Dirt with a hoof like raw hamburger, thanks to the coarse sand surface of the Tokyo track. In contrast, the grass at Nad Al Sheba is fairway-smooth, with international appeal. Last year's Duty Free went to British star David Junior, with California favorite The Tin Man second.

"I think we all love challenges," O'Neill concluded. "If he regains his form of 2006, and the opportunity presents itself, you'll see Lava Man on the road again. I know everyone will be saying we're idiots. But we still think he can ship and win."