08/01/2008 12:00AM

Thanks for the memories, Lava Man


DEL MAR, Calif. - When it was finally over on Wednesday, the day that Lava Man's retirement was announced after 10 days of speculation, co-owner Jason Wood sat down at his Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., home and sent out an e-mail to about 30 family members and friends.

Wood highlighted the 2005 Hollywood Gold Cup, the first of the gelding's three consecutive wins in that Grade 1 race, the two wins in the Santa Anita Handicap in 2006 and 2007 and the 2006 Pacific Classic as personal favorites.

"All you can say is, 'Thanks, Lava Man,'" Wood wrote in his message.

The raw statistics of Lava Man's career emphasize Wood's feelings - 17 wins in 46 starts, seven Grade 1 wins, and earnings of $5,268,706. He retires as the third-richest California-bred in history behind Tiznow ($6,247,830) and Best Pal ($5,668,245). Not bad company.

What cannot be quantified is his impact on the sport in California. In an age when champion horses sometimes make fewer than 10 career starts or race longer than a year, Lava Man became a familiar name to California sports fans from 2005 to 2008, and not just racing fans who congregate at Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.


If you popped into one of those places on, say, July 9, 2005, the date of Lava Man's first win in the Hollywood Gold Cup, or Aug. 20, 2006, the afternoon that Lava Man won the Pacific Classic, or March 3, 2007, when he defended his title in the Santa Anita Handicap, you saw a performance to remember.

Trained by Doug O'Neill for Wood and Steve, Dave and Tracy Kenly, Lava Man won the 2005 Gold Cup by 8 3/4 lengths, a record margin. After the race Steve Kenly, who never tired of talking about Lava Man, was nearly speechless.

"I was shaking," he said at the time. "We could hardly see straight. It's a rarity to get a horse like this."

The day Lava Man won the Pacific Classic, he broke the will of his seven rivals with a romping move on the final turn that gave him an insurmountable three-length lead. He had been third in the race in 2005 and was then vanned off afterward, exhausted. The Pacific Classic win remains a personal favorite for Tony Romero, the exercise rider who was almost exclusively Lava Man's partner after he was claimed for $50,000 in August 2004.

"I felt good when he won all those races," Romero said on the Del Mar backstretch earlier this week.

When Lava Man defended his title in the 2007 Santa Anita Handicap, he fought off a stubborn Molengao to win by three-quarters of a length before an adoring ontrack crowd of 43,024. As he galloped back to the winner's circle, Lava Man was greeted by waves of cheering that started on the far reaches of the clubhouse, went through the box seats and finally to the grandstand before reaching a crescendo.

Lava Man won only one more race, the 2007 Gold Cup. He lost the final six races of his career, the last of which was a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar on July 20. Last week, while being examined at the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Clinic in Los Olivos, Calif., veterinarians said that Lava Man's ankles were suffering from wear and tear, Steve Kenly said.

The 7-year-old, bred by Lonnie Arterburn and Eve and Kim Kuhlmann, had reached the end of his career.

The evolution of Lava Man from $50,000 claimer to Grade 1 winner took less than 11 months from August 2004 to July 2005. Lava Man spent the next years proving he was so much more.