03/01/2007 1:00AM

Two worth a shot against Lava Man

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When you wager against the best horse in any race, you had better have a good reason. The Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday is no exception.

It would be foolish to predict Lava Man will get beat. Why should he? He has not lost in California since summer 2005, a West Coast streak that includes eight straight wins and last year's sweep of the big three - the Big Cap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.

It has been one heck of a roll, and the streak is likely to continue Saturday when Lava Man runs in the Big Cap against eight apparently overmatched rivals. But anyone who believes Lava Man is an automatic cinch has not paid attention to history.

Sooner or later they all get beat. It happens often in the Big Cap. In 2005, even-money Saint Liam finished off the board. In 2004, odds-on Congaree ran second. In 1999, Silver Charm finished third at even-money. In 1998, Gentlemen was last of four at odds of 1-20.

Saint Liam, Congaree, Silver Charm, and Gentlemen all looked good going in, but their defeats are a reminder that horses are not machines, and no race is pre-ordained.

So can you bet against the best horse Saturday? You can, for one very good reason - his price.

Lava Man is 4-5 on the track morning line, and he could go shorter. Good. The lower he goes, the higher go the others, including borderline contenders who can win the Big Cap only if everything breaks just right for them.

There is no reason to knock Strub winner Arson Squad or San Antonio winner Molengao. The races they won are the traditional Big Cap preps, and under ideal circumstances either might win the Big Cap. But if you beat Lava Man, wouldn't you want more than 9-2 on Arson Squad or 6-1 on Molengao? Those are the morning-line odds.

Arson Squad and Molengao benefited from good trips in their last-start wins. Maybe they are as good as their races look. Maybe they are not. The problem with backing a horse following a win is that many expect the horse to run the same race again. Last-start winners seldom offer wagering value, except horses moving up sharply in class.

McCann's Mojave fits that description, and as the second-highest price on the morning line at 15-1, he cannot be faulted. He ran fast winning the Sunshine Millions Classic and enters the Big Cap on a three-race win streak (no other starter has won even two straight). McCann's Mojave might have forgotten how to lose.

The likely value in the Big Cap, however, are horses who lost their last start. The benefit to backing a horse following a loss is that many expect the horse to run the same race again. But maybe they are better than their last-start loss makes them look. Losers frequently offer wagering value, except horses dropping in class. There are no droppers Saturday.

Boboman and El Roblar enter the Big Cap off losses, and are 12-1 and 20-1, respectively. Boboman has had corrective throat surgery since his last start, but has never raced on dirt. Boboman is difficult to endorse. El Roblar enters on an upward pattern (third in the San Antonio), and it might be foolish to knock him as the longest shot in the field. Spring at Last is fast; he ran second in the Strub, but 1 1/4 miles is a long way, even at 15-1.

That leaves two others in the Big Cap field. Both lost their last start, and the chances are that neither horse is good enough to win. But maybe they are.

Front-runner Ball Four and late-runner Awesome Gem have sufficient attributes and price potential. And one thing is for sure - they will stay out of each other's way.

Ball Four wired the field last fall in the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park, and reproduced the effort with a huge runner-up finish on Keeneland's anti-speed-biased Polytrack in the Grade 3 Fayette. Only one of the 35 route races last fall at Keeneland was won by a horse that led at every call. Ball Four led to deep stretch and got nailed.

One month later in a Grade 3 at Hollywood Park, Ball Four chased a blistering pace. He was 10 lengths clear of third after a half-mile, and weakened late to lose by five lengths. The race was an indication he held form. In his most recent start, he did it again.

Hounded through a sub-23-second opening quarter in the San Antonio, Ball Four slowed it down, fought off every challenge, but got nailed late. It was another sharp try by a sharp front-runner.

Ball Four is 15-1 on the morning line and could shake loose Saturday in the Big Cap. If he does, perhaps this time he will not stop. But if Ball Four forces a meltdown, and the pace collapses entirely, then Awesome Gem has a shot from behind at 10-1.

Awesome Gem followed a troubled runner-up finish in an opening-day turf race with a somewhat predictable upset in the San Fernando. But in the 1 1/8-mile Strub, he merely ran around the track and made no impact, finishing fifth.

Awesome Gem is a one-paced grinder with a deep foundation. He is the only Big Cap starter who has raced in three route races this meet. Awesome Gem might not be good enough, but he wants every bit of 1 1/4 mile. If the pace collapses and Lava Man misfires, then the Big Cap is a race Awesome Gem can win.

You can bet against the best horse on Saturday, because at 4-5 or less, Lava Man offers negligible value.

And before he wins the Big Cap for a second straight year, Lava Man must catch front-running longshot Ball Four, and then hold off the rally of late-running longshot Awesome Gem.