10/05/2006 12:00AM

One that got away still hurts

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It's that time again. Another Lava Man appearance and another chance for the racing media to rub Lonnie Arterburn's nose in the fact that he's the guy who lost the horse for $50,000 in August of 2004 at Del Mar.

Thing is, though, they don't have to rub very hard. Arterburn says not a day goes by when he doesn't get just a little sick to his stomach at the thought of what might have been.

He is proud of the horse, and complimentary of the way trainer Doug O'Neill has kept Lava Man remarkably sound through more than two years of steady campaigning. Still, as co-owner and breeder of Lava Man with Eve and Kim Kuhlmann, that 50 grand was gone a long time ago. Today, more than $3 million later, Lava Man stands at the threshold of a $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic appearance that could make him nothing less than Horse of the Year.

Before that, he needs to get past Brother Derek, Magnum, Super Frolic, and Giacomo in the Goodwood Handicap on Saturday at Santa Anita. Then all he needs to do is overcome a lifetime aversion to travel, deal with an unfamiliar surface at Churchill Downs, and confront Bernardini and whatever else the East throws at him. Watching Lava Man from the sidelines, Arterburn wouldn't put it past him.

"We really liked the horse, and we obviously made a huge mistake losing him," said Arterburn this week from his Florida farm. "I never expected him to get as good as he did. Unfortunately, I lost him trying to run the horse in logical spot where I thought he could win. It's ironic. I made a career out of claiming horses, and I won't deny it. Then I go and lose a horse like that. Hindsight is perfect. I should have protected him a lot longer. It's something that eats at my guts every day."

Racing is a game of regrets, of fleeting highs and endless lows, punctuated only by the woulda-shoulda-coulda beat that keeps the inmates coming back for more. But even though Arterburn feels like he let the horse of a lifetime get away, his horizons are hardly grim. After 20 years as a trainer out West, he has established a 20-acre gem in Ocala, Fla., part of a co-op training community, where he is determined to make a mark.

"This is the place to be if you really want to be in the horse business," Arterburn said. "And I really like horses. Here I can keep horses in paddocks, where they can be real horses. They don't have to be caged up all the time at the racetrack, where they never seem to get a break, and just disintegrate, racing until they break down."

The Arterburn farm is a family affair, with plenty of help from the women in Lonnie's life: his wife, Doris, and daughters Jamie and Brittany. Jamie Arterburn is currently training a small stable at Laurel, while Brittany is a freshly minted apprentice rider.

This is consistent with Arterburn's racing pedigree. Now 49, he is the son of Jack Arterburn, popular and successful as both jockey and trainer in northern California and the Northwest. Arterburn's uncle, Damon "Buster" Pollard, was a familiar name in New York. And then there is Lonnie's sister, Tami, who had the good sense to marry Russell Baze.

As a trainer, Arterburn made headlines long before Lava Man. One of his first claims was the Pia Star filly Star Gem, for $16,000. Arterburn won three races and got her stakes-placed before she was claimed away. As a broodmare, Star Gem produced major stakes winners Star of Cozzene and Matty G.

During the summer of 1996, Arterburn unleashed the fast filly Broad Dynamite, a daughter of Broad Brush who was beaten just three-quarters of a length by Sharp Cat when third in the Del Mar Debutante. Later, Broad Dynamite ran third in the Arlington-Washington Lassie, and then won the Astarita Stakes at Aqueduct.

From mid-1999 through the spring of 2000, Arterburn campaigned the Metfield filly Rings a Chime, who reeled off a dozen fine starts before injury ended her career. Along the way she won the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and the Bay Meadows Lassie and finished second in both the Kentucky Oaks and the Santa Ysabel Stakes. (A Storm Cat colt out of Rings a Chime topped the 2005 Fasig-Tipton August yearling sale at $3.1 million, going to Coolmore.)

Arterburn also won the 2000 version of the El Camino Real Derby with Remember Sheikh, then won it again in 2004 with Kilgowan. The "other" 3-year-old in the barn at the time was Lava Man.

"Lava Man has become a great horse, and he can get the classic mile and a quarter, which a lot of horses can't," Arterburn noted. "But he's also been a sound horse - that's his hole card. He's just outlasted the other horses in California."

As a small consolation, the California-bred Lava Man has been piling up breeders awards for Arterburn and the Kuhlmanns, a total now approaching $300,000.

"Every time he runs good he makes me money, but it's still hard to swallow," Arterburn said. "To be honest, we have these horses thinking it's our lottery. I breed, own, buy, and claim them. To have actually been right and not held on long enough is really frustrating. But I've still got a few good years left."