06/12/2006 12:00AM

Seeing shades of John Henry


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was about this time last year that the new and improved Lava Man emerged, blinkers on and breathing fire, to win an allowance race, the Californian Stakes, and the Hollywood Gold Cup in giddy succession.

Last Saturday, Lava Man added another layer to his growing reputation by winning the Whittingham Memorial at 1 1/4 miles on Hollywood Park's firm grass course, placing himself in a category best described as "a dying breed."

The ability to win major events open to all comers on turf and dirt is a lost art, like handwritten letters or homemade ice cream. The patron saint of this particular sect is Round Table, who was not only the three-time grass champion of the late 1950's, but also home first in races like the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

Round Table's disciples include such multi-purpose Thoroughbreds as Secretariat, Ack Ack, Hill Rise, Quicken Tree, Olden Times, Tiller, Lemhi Gold, Perrault, Vanlandingham, Exceller, Cougar, and of course John Henry, the last horse to be voted a champion on both grass and dirt. That was 1981.

Since 1981, such switch-hitters have come few and far between. Racing, like major-league pitching, has been compartmentalized (starter, middle relief, setup, closer), with the players rarely straying outside the limits of their own turf, dirt, distance, and gender ghettos.

Other than Lava Man, the most recent American-raced horse who came closest to the Round Table ethic was the Argentina-bred Candy Ride, winner of the American Handicap on grass and the Pacific Classic on dirt in 2003. Unfortunately, he never raced again after the Classic.

The Dubai World Cup, at 10 furlongs worth of loam and desert sand, has exposed at least three European runners among its winners - Electrocutionist, Dubai Millennium, and Singspiel - who probably could have bounced back and forth from grass to dirt at the top of the game without breaking stride. Swain, Giant's Causeway, and Sakhee came close as well, boasting narrow losses in the Breeders' Cup Classic to go along with a cluster of prestigious European turf prizes.

After winning the Whittingham, Corey Nakatani jumped off Lava Man and offered up comparisons to John Henry. There were a few nibbles, if only to cite how rare it is these days to do what Lava Man has done. If nothing else, Nakatani must be given credit for paying attention, since he was still a week shy of his 14th birthday when John Henry ran for the final time, in October 1984.

Up in the stands, Ron McAnally chewed on the decent fourth-place finish of defending champ Sweet Return in the Whittingham before observing, "Only 122 pounds on the Santa Anita Handicap winner. How does that happen?"

McAnally, like most of the other surviving dinosaurs, has the disadvantage of longevity. He remembers when he had to wage psychological battles with racing secretaries over a pound or two heaped upon John Henry for rich and prestigious handicaps. Flipping back and forth from grass to dirt was one way to finesse the imposts.

Sometimes it even worked. After winning the 1981 version of the Whittingham (then known as the the Hollywood Turf Invitational), McAnally wheeled John Henry right back in the Hollywood Gold Cup and didn't even pick up a pound. He carried 130 in both, and by the end of the year he had done enough to be voted Horse of the Year.

A defense of his title in the July 13 Hollywood Gold Cup is supposed to be Lava Man's next start. It is premature, however, to begin tossing Horse of the Year hints Lava Man's way. Yes, he has won two of the more treasured events on the 2006 Southern California calendar - the Santa Anita Handicap and the Whittingham - both of them run at the convincing distance of 1 1/4 miles. But 2006 is nearly halfway cooked, and the other two wins of Lava Man's carefully managed season have come in restricted events - the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita and the Khaled Handicap on Hollywood Park's Gold Rush Day.

Those are meaningless in a national context, which means more evidence will be required. Because he is based in Southern California, Lava Man must travel and win. Since the beginning of the Eclipse Awards, in 1971, only Ack Ack and Ferdinand have been voted Horse of the Year on the evidence of a California-only campaign.

Back when John Henry was on his five-season march, McAnally kept a photo of Round Table in grass-course action pinned to the wall of his tackroom office. He would quiz visitors, asking them to identify that horse, and more often than not they would say John Henry.

"You can see why, though," McAnally would say. "Their action on grass almost looks the same. Round Table was by Princequillo, and so was Prince Blessed, the sire of Ole Bob Bowers."

By then, every schoolchild knew that Ole Bob Bowers was the sire of John Henry. Lava Man has a ways to go, but maybe someday it will be common knowledge that his dam, Li'l Miss Leonard, is a granddaughter of Nostalgia, who was a grandson of Prince John, who was by Princequillo.