08/15/2007 12:00AM

Taking a shot at Lava Man


DEL MAR, Calif. - This is baffling. For nearly two solid years, Lava Man has been unbeatable on California main tracks and nearly as flawless on grass. He has won 6 of the last 7 offerings of the West's best races for his division - three Hollywood Gold Cups, two Santa Anita Handicaps, and last year's Pacific Classic - and yet, as entries were being taken for Sunday's 17th running of the million-dollar Classic, horses were lining up to face Lava Man by the carload.

Del Mar's Polytrack surface has something to do with it. All bets are off until a horse performs on the mysterious sand, and Lava Man has only tasted the stuff in a variety of training moves. Of course, that's like saying Muhammad Ali has only been sparring and jumping rope. Good luck in the ring.

Then there are those margins. Lava Man won the 2006 and 2007 runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup by a nose, and he won the 2007 Santa Anita Handicap by just three-quarters of a length. Such generosity tends to encourage challengers. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, horses like Ace Blue, Molengao, and A.P. Xcellent have run the races of their lives and still had to settle for second best.

The most obvious answer for the popularity of the '07 Pacific Classic is the fact that Lava Man is not only the horse to beat, he's the only horse to beat. Old School horse management dictates that when there is a lone monster in the field, enter anyway, because anything can happen to any superstar in any given race.

Charlie Whittingham was among the chief proponents of such a philosophy, which is how he jumped up to beat Nashua (at 3-10) with Mister Gus in the 1956 Woodward and Swaps (at 3-10) with Porterhouse in the 1956 Californian.

Whittingham continued to practice what he preached when faced with John Henry, the Lava Man of the early 1980s. In race after race, John Henry frustrated his opposition with ruthless efficiency. Still, Whittingham kept up the pressure, figuring that someday, somehow, John Henry could be beaten. After finishing second to John Henry in six major stakes, between early 1980 and late 1981, Charlie finally beat the champ with Providential II.

Sean McCarthy did not get a chance to enter Whittingham's circle until 1994, when he came recommended by Monty Roberts, the noted California breeder, consignor, and expert handler of problem Thoroughbreds.

It would take awhile to catalog all McCarthy learned from Whittingham in his two years at the barn, before Charlie started cutting back in deference to health and age. It is clear, however, that the bit about never being afraid of a single horse sunk in, especially with a million bucks on the line. To that end, McCarthy will be running a horse in his first seven-figure race on Sunday when he sends out Salty Humor in the Pacific Classic.

"Apparently, a lot of other people are thinking the same thing," McCarthy said this week, after wrapping up one of his shifts as analyst for the Santa Anita-based HRTV racing network. "As odd as it sounds, though, a big field might work to the advantage of our horse. He's truly push-button and figures to get a decent trip."

Salty Humor is a 5-year-old son of Distorted Humor who is owned by the Totally Platinum Stable of retired music recording executive Phil Chess. When last seen, Salty Humor was finishing a decent third to Sun Boat and Awesome Gem in the San Diego Handicap on July 21. And while the 1 1/16 miles was run on the Polytrack that day in something like 25 minutes - I could be off slightly - it was the way Salty Humor handled himself that got McCarthy thinking Classic.

"He's stronger now than he's ever been before," McCarthy said, "and he put in a good run in the San Diego - at least enough to go ahead and give it a try. A guy like me doesn't get too many opportunities to run in a race like this."

McCarthy is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area who eventually landed an assistant trainer's spot with Northern California's Duane Offield. In 1989, McCarthy traveled to Monmouth Park with Offield stable star Restless Con to win the Haskell Invitational.

"When you're on a small circuit, like Northern California, and then get to see the other side of the game, winning the Haskell, everything's kind of anticlimactic when you get home," McCarthy said. "That's when I leased a place up in Sacramento to try to develop the kind of clients that would lead to better horses."

After working for Whittingham, McCarthy remained in Southern California and has been plugging away with a small stable ever since, with HRTV on the side.

McCarthy has trained Salty Humor for each of his 21 starts, but other than the San Diego, there's not much that puts him in the picture with Lava Man, especially at the Classic's level weights. Still, minor miracles sometimes occur. If Salty Humor shocks the Classic, McCarthy's face will be splashed all over ESPN and TVG, while HRTV will need to get the highlights somewhere down the line. McCarthy laughed at the prospect.

"I'll let them work that out," he said. "But it would be a nice problem."