06/26/2007 11:00PM

O'Neill to miss Lava Man's Cup run

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - How confident is trainer Doug O'Neill regarding Lava Man's chances for a record-equaling third win in Saturday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup? He left the country Monday for a weeklong vacation in Ireland.

Last winter, O'Neill planned the trip as a way to celebrate his mother Dixie's 70th birthday earlier this month. It was only later that he realized the dates coincided with Gold Cup week.

"Talking to him this morning, he's going nuts that he's not here," Dennis O'Neill, the trainer's brother, said on the Hollywood Park backstretch Wednesday.

Doug O'Neill said last weekend that he was reluctant to leave during the build up to the Gold Cup, but that he had left the 6-year-old Lava Man in the capable hands of assistant trainer Leandro Mora, exercise rider Tony Romero, and groom Noe Garcia.

"Of the team, if there is anyone that didn't need to show up on gameday, it would be me," O'Neill said. "I'm least important."

Saturday, Lava Man will attempt to join Native Diver (1965-67) as the only three-time winner of the Gold Cup.

Lava Man will be favored to win the Grade 1 Gold Cup, which is run over 1 1/4 miles and drew a field of nine. Lava Man drew post 8 and will carry a top weight of 124 pounds.

The Gold Cup will be Lava Man's first start since a second in the Gradeo1 Charles Whittingham Handicap on June 9. He will not have a workout between the Whittingham and Gold Cup, which was by design, Doug O'Neill said last weekend.

"It's only three weeks in between, and he puts as much, if not more, energy into every gallop than most horses put in maintenance half-mile works," O'Neill said.

Mr. Splash heading to farm

The Gold Cup field will have a confirmed front-runner in A.P. Xcellent, who finished third in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes on June 2. He may be the lone speed after the longshot Mr. Splash was not among the entries.

Owner Greg Bardakjian, who races under the name Janavar Thoroughbreds, said Wednesday that Mr. Splash suffered a bowed tendon in recent training. A 5-year-old gelding, Mr. Splash was trained by Paddy Gallagher, but was moved to trainer Lisa Lewis's stable Wednesday.

"We wanted a second opinion," Bardakjian said of the injury.

"He'll go to the farm. It's the second time he's bowed and it's highly unlikely" he would make a comeback.

In a career plagued by layoffs, Mr. Splash has won 4 of 13 starts and $140,300. In his only stakes appearance, he was second in the Grade 3 Silky Sullivan Stakes at Golden Gate Fields in November 2005.

Handicap status draws Big Booster

The Gold Cup is being run as a handicap for the third consecutive year, having been run as a weight-for-age race from 1997-2004. The most prestigious race at Hollywood Park, the Gold Cup was a handicap from its inception in 1938 until 1996.

The change back to a handicap is the principal reason that the longshot Big Booster is part of the field. Big Booster will carry 113 pounds, 11 less than Lava Man, and will be ridden by leading rider Michael Baze.

"If it wasn't a handicap, I wouldn't do it," trainer Mike Mitchell said. "We'll take a shot and have a little fun."

The Gold Cup will be Big Booster's first start in a Grade 1 and first stakes appearance on a synthetic track. He won his debut on that surface in an optional claimer over 1o1/16 miles here on May 24, rallying from eighth to win by three-quarters of a length.

"I think he'll improve off that race," Mitchell said.

Mitchell acknowledges that Lava Man and Molengao, winner of the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap, may be impossible to beat.

"If I'm third, I'll be fine," Mitchell said.

Like many rival owners and trainers, Mitchell is left wondering whether a trip to Dubai in March has affected Lava Man's chances. Lava Man finished last of 16 in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free on turf.

"I think the Dubai trip was enough to take him off the edge," Mitchell said. "It's a tough thing on a horse."

Mitchell had considered running Big Booster and Sun Boat, runner-up in the Californian Stakes on June 2, in the Gold Cup. Like Big Booster, Sun Boat is a former claimer. He entered Big Booster with the full support of owners Scott and Andy Anastasi and Jimmy Ukegawa.

"I told Scott, if I win the Californian with Sun Boat, I'll run Big Booster in the Gold Cup," Mitchell said. "I think they're similar horses."

Sun Boat missed winning the Californian by a nose. It was close enough for Big Booster to earn a spot in the Gold Cup.

Becrux, The Tin Man meet again

The Gold Cup is the 10th race on an 11-race program that includes three other stakes - the $250,000 American Handicap on turf, the $100,000 Landaluce Stakes for 2-year-old sprinting fillies, and the $75,000 Korbel Handicap for statebreds over a mile on turf.

The Tin Man, a 9-year-old gelding, will attempt to win the American for the third time, having won the race in 2002 and last year. The Tin Man won his only start this year, the Grade 1 Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile on May 28. He stalked a slow pace and took the lead in the final furlong for the eighth stakes win of his career.

Becrux may have given The Tin Man a fuss in the stretch of the Shoemaker Mile if more pace had developed. Becrux closed from sixth on the final turn to get within a length at the wire.

"He wasn't beaten far," trainer Neil Drysdale said. "He ran his race."

Becrux can surpass $1 million in earnings if he wins the American. Owned by Team Valor Stable and Gary Barber, Becrux has won 8 of 22 starts and $859,668. The American Handicap is worth $150,000 to the winner.

Becrux's biggest win came in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile last September, his most recent victory. Drysdale is expecting a big season in 2007.

"He's more relaxed this year," he said.

Becrux drew the rail in the American, which has seven entrants.