Updated on 09/18/2011 1:50AM

One thing left for Lava Man


NEW YORK - There has been enough disheartening racing news this year, so it is pleasing to report that the feel-good story of the year, Lava Man, rolls right on.

Lava Man continued his perfect season by winning Sunday's Pacific Classic with authority, becoming the first horse to win California's three biggest races for older horses - the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Pacific Classic - in a single year. It is almost icing on the cake that Lava Man also owns a win this year in a major California turf stakes, the Charles Whittingham Handicap.

Even those who picked and bet against Lava Man on Sunday because of his short odds knew that they were in for an uphill battle. Lava Man's positional speed was a huge asset in a Pacific Classic that lacked pace. Sure enough, Lava Man was in it from the outset, contesting the pace as if to merely indulge his opposition before breaking the race open on the far turn. At this point, there isn't an active older horse in California worthy of carrying his feed tub. In fact, the only older horse in America who might be on a par with Lava Man is Invasor, the winner of the Whitney, Suburban, and Pimlico Special. And even that is purely a matter of opinion. Lava Man and Invasor have never met, and the two don't have a common opponent this year who was good enough to make a worthy comparison.

We hope that Lava Man and Invasor will meet in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4 to help decide the best older male of 2006. Lava Man's people have given every indication that they will take advantage of the Breeders' Cup's new and more financially reasonable requirements to make a horse who was not Breeders' Cup-nominated, such as Lava Man, eligible to run in the Breeders' Cup. And when we get to the point where it is time for Lava Man's owners to cut that check to the Breeders' Cup, it will open the door to the big question:

Can Lava Man ship successfully?

For all he has done, perhaps the only thing Lava Man has not accomplished is to duplicate his stellar California form in his rare forays outside of his home territory. And that might be the only thing separating him and Invasor, who was a champion in Uruguay, and who competed this year in Dubai before his big wins in Maryland and New York.

Pine Island nipping at Bushfire's tail

On Saturday at Saratoga, Pine Island emerged as a serious challenger to Bushfire for this year's 3-year-old filly championship following a determined victory in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes.

Pine Island has never finished worse than second and was beaten less than a length in both of her defeats, which happened to be her first two attempts at the Grade 1 stakes level, but the Alabama was just her first career stakes victory. So when it comes to the leadership of her division, Pine Island is still chasing Bushfire, who boasts three Grade 1 victories this year and edged Pine Island in the Mother Goose Stakes in their only meeting. But while Bushfire is taking a breather over the summer in order to be fresh for the critical fall races, Pine Island has kept busy, improving dramatically from one start to the next. Her off-the-pace score Saturday was by far her best performance to date.

Trainer Shug McGaughey realizes Pine Island is in prime position to make a run at an Eclipse Award, and he knows Pine Island has to meet and beat Bushfire before the Breeders' Cup Distaff if she is to validate her championship credentials. That is why, after the Alabama, McGaughey seemed eager to get another crack at Bushfire; the two potential targets he mentioned for Pine Island might be on Bushfire's agenda, as well. The first of those races is the Gazelle Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 9, which is a logical spot for Bushfire's return, since she won the Mother Goose and the Acorn over that track. The other race is the Spinster Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 8, and since she is Kentucky-based, you would think that race would definitely be on Bushfire's schedule.

Considering that the configuration of Belmont Park would require Pine Island to shorten up to one turn in the Gazelle, she could be a bit vulnerable in that spot, although it might not be that big a deal, since Pine Island seems to be a much better horse now than she was when she lost narrowly to Bushfire in the Mother Goose. But the race that should really water the mouths of Pine Island's connections, even if it requires her to face older opponents, is the Spinster. Like the Gazelle, the Spinster is at 1 1/8 miles. But at Keeneland, nine-furlong races are run around two turns. As noted, the Alabama was Pine Island's best race so far, and it might not be a coincidence that the Alabama was also Pine Island's first start around two legitimate turns since her successful career debut on the turf at Gulfstream last winter.

The funny thing is, for a long time, the connections of deep closers like Pine Island would seriously consider avoiding any race at Keeneland, even if it afforded the opportunity to go two turns, because of the notorious speed-favoring reputation of the Keeneland main track. But that was then. Keeneland will unveil a new Polytrack surface this fall, and judging from what little has been seen of Polytrack so far in this country, a surface like that would seem tailor-made for a horse like Pine Island.