08/20/2006 11:00PM

The O'Neill gang creates a monster

Lava Man (with red shadow roll) makes his move in the Pacific Classic under Corey Nakatani.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Late Sunday afternoon, in the wake of 's historic victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic, Doug O'Neill was reciting his familiar postrace litany, the same one heard after each of Lava Man's major victories during his relentless streak of 2006, in which the trainer describes teamwork as the key and thanks everyone surrounding the stable star for doing a "super" job.

O'Neill praised Lava Man's groom, Noe Garcia. He gave special acknowledgement to his exercise rider, Antonio Romero. Blacksmith Jimmy Jimenez, who helped deal with a dicey foot injured last fall in Japan, got a grateful nod, as did Corey Nakatani, who wisely rides Lava Man to his most subtle training cues. And, of course, there was Leandro Mora, O'Neill's assistant trainer, so obviously vital in his role that he was singled out by Del Mar announcer Trevor Denman during postrace ceremonies.

Neither would O'Neill cop to the idea that he steered his owners into claiming Lava Man at Del Mar two years ago for $50,000, making sure the record shows that Steve Kenly and Jason Wood are the guys who deserve the credit.

"I told them he wasn't worth it when he was in for $62,500, and I even tried to talk them out of taking him for $50,000," O'Neill confessed. "That's how smart I was."

In fact, O'Neill was so determined to downplay any direct impact on Lava Man's accomplishments that he finally suggested, "I could call in sick for about six months and everything would be just fine."

Maybe so, but he wouldn't have wanted to miss the last half a year, during which Lava Man became the first horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Pacific Classic in a single season.

At the age of 38, O'Neill has become a prime example of the modern Thoroughbred trainer as team manager, a chief operating officer who surrounds himself with the best possible people in key positions, buffers them from patron pressures, and lets them do their jobs.

In terms of horseflesh, O'Neill tries to maintain an inventory of runners that is fine-tuned to the Southern California condition books, which is why his starters - and often winners - outnumber any other barn on the circuit.

"I'm still learning, learning all the time," O'Neill has said. "I'd like to think that I'm smart enough to know what I don't know."

Mora, who learned his trade as assistant to the late Brian Mayberry, brings the depth of old-school horsemanship to O'Neill's modern management techniques. It has made for a rich combination, as proven by Lava Man, champion 2-year-old Stevie Wonderboy, 2002 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Sky Jack, and a host of lesser stakes horses, along with a good enough supply of claimers to make the stable a regular contender for meeting championships.

"That's why I consider Doug a heckuva smart person," Mora said. "He can manage a claimer as good as a Grade 1 horse. Not very many trainers can handle that. Bobby Frankel was one, and Farrell Jones and Gary Jones, very respectable trainers. They could do it, and it's not easy."

O'Neill and Mora's preparation of Lava Man for the Pacific Classic flies in the face of what would seem to be traditional patterns of publicly recorded workouts. In the 31 days between his victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Classic, Lava Man worked only twice, a half-mile in 47.80 and three-quarters in 1:14.00.

"Yes, but you know that three-quarters?" Mora said. "On my watch he galloped out seven-eighths in 1:26 around the turn, and he probably got the mile in 1:39. Then there is his gallops, all of them very strong. Because of that, we don't have to pressure horses, work their asses off, so they can run this kind of race."

As he spoke, Mora was following Lava Man from the Del Mar winner's circle to the testing barn. Along the way, Leandro Mora groupies cried out their congratulations in Spanish as he waved with one hand and held tight to Lava Man's Pacific Classic saddlecloth with the other. Notorious for emptying the tank in every race, Lava Man looked like a horse who could go around again.

"We went back to the barn last night, and he seemed to be full of himself," said co-owner Jason Wood on Monday morning. "He didn't seem to be tired."

This was a far cry from the Lava Man of a year ago, when he set the Pacific Classic pace from the inside, getting the first half in 45.90 seconds under pressure from Surf Cat, and then opened a daylight lead in the stretch only to be caught in the last 50 yards by Borrego and Perfect Drift. Lava Man was so exhausted from his efforts he had to be vanned back to the barn. Patrick Valenzuela rode him that day.

"That was very scary," conceded Wood. "And I was even a little worried about the fractions yesterday. I'd have much rather seen a half in 47 rather than 46 and 3. But I think it's important for him to show that he doesn't need to have everything go perfectly his way, like in the Gold Cup" - when he broke poorly - "and to a certain degree yesterday. He always finds a way to figure things out and get the job done."

Even those closest to Lava Man concede their hero still has something to prove. Two of his six wins this year came in restricted events, and they all took place in California. The Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs awaits, with a vital prep that, in O'Neill's words, "we need to win." Among North America's older male champions, only Ghostzapper (4 for 4) and Cigar (10 for 10) have gone undefeated in a season since Spectacular Bid (9 for 9) in 1980.

Still, such expectations seem to be borderline lunacy for a horse like Lava Man, who could have been claimed for $12,500 in his first start at the San Joaquin County Fair, 38 months ago.

"Whatever happens today doesn't matter," Mora said earlier as Lava Man paraded to the post. "Look at all he's done for us already. How could we expect more?"