08/17/2006 12:00AM

Taking low-profile route to fame

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DEL MAR, Calif. - There are reasons that Lava Man has yet to become a breakout superstar - along the lines of Bernardini, for example, or last year's Horse of the Year, Saint Liam - in spite of the fact that he has won $2.9 million, two Hollywood Gold Cups, and a Santa Anita Handicap, Grade 1 races on turf and dirt, and will be the starting favorite on Sunday at Del Mar in the 16th running of the $1 million Pacific Classic.

Maybe it's because his own people don't even call him by name anymore - at least not in the presence of curious visitors, many of whom find their way into the handy O'Neill shed row just inside the grandstand entrance to the stable area.

"It's not so much that he minds the attention," O'Neill said. "He likes it. It's when you leave that he gets grouchy."

That explains why the name on the patch of silver duct tape on Lava Man's stall has been temporarily changed to . . . blah-blah. Come Sunday afternoon, there will be plenty of red-shirted security types hovering around the stall, and they'll know who he is.

If Lava Man wins the Classic, he will have swept California's three most important main-track events. Unfortunately, the nation is beginning to view races like the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup as little more than regional scrimmages, mixing the same bunch of animals geographically isolated from the rest of the racing world. Back East, the equivalent races would be, say, the Donn Handicap and the Suburban Handicap, and winning both in the same season is hardly the stuff of legends.

Lava Man also has failed miserably in his only two races outside California. Granted, they were two pretty stern events - the 2005 runnings of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Japan Cup Dirt - but in both races Lava Man was essentially eased out of competition by his riders. The horse emerged from the Japan Cup Dirt with the sole of a foot bloodied and raw from the dry, sandy surface at Tokyo Race Course.

"The only problem we've had with him lately you can see right there on the outside of his pastern," O'Neill said one morning this week, pointing to Lava Man's right foreleg, where a couple of nasty-looking scratches looked all but healed. "It happened a couple of weeks ago when he put his foot in his feed tub."

Lava Man's switch to the turf to win the Whittingham Memorial last June was a spectacular piece of work, but it was also an esoteric accomplishment that has no real modern context. Not since since the days of John Henry, Perrault, Lemhi Gold, Waya, and Exceller have major American-based horses batted both ways in significant numbers.

And then there is the issue of his background, which is blue-collar to the core. Lava Man is a California-bred $50,000 claim out of a mare who was claimed for $16,000. In his first race he ran for a $12,500 claiming price. Only his sire, Slew City Slew, rescues the female side of the pedigree from oblivion, and yet he stands for just $6,000 at Kentucky's Airdrie Stud.

The people in Lava Man's life are not exactly household names, even though trainer Doug O'Neill is emerging as one of the perennial meet leaders on the California circuit, and trained last year's champion 2-year-old colt, Stevie Wonderboy. As for Lava Man's owners, Jason Wood and the STD Racing Stable of Steve, Tracy and Dave Kenly, this is their first turn in the spotlight.

"We're a small-time stable," Steve Kenly said. "People really don't know us. But as far as I'm concerned, the horse speaks for himself. He's like a modern-day Seabiscuit, and I think it's great for racing that something like this could happen."

O'Neill, for one, is worried that the possible fallout from his current squabble with the California Horse Racing Board over the blood gas levels of a well-beaten maiden he ran last spring has spilled over onto his stable star. In 19 starts for O'Neill, Lava Man has never tested positive for any banned substance, nor has any postrace test come up with an excessive level of an allowed medication.

"You hear things like Doug O'Neill pumped this horse full of this or that and made him what he is," Kenly said. "That's just not true at all. I've seen this horse progress over a slow maturing process. One of the reasons I wanted to claim his is that his sire was best when he was 5 and his dam's sire" - Hawthorne Gold Cup winner Nostalgia's Star - "was best when he was 5."

Claimed by the Kenlys and Wood two years ago last Sunday at Del Mar, Lava Man is now enjoying his finest season - at age 5. If he can handle Giacomo, Magnum, Perfect Drift, and the rest of the Classic field, he will have dead aim on the Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Churchill Downs, and maybe even a shot at Horse of the Year. After that, it might not matter if be becomes a household name.