08/16/2007 11:00PM

Use, but don't single, Lava Man

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PHOENIX - There is the growing sentiment that Lava Man, wonderful and reliable as he has been, has lost a step or two, that his stirring Hollywood Gold Cup victory was more a testament to his courage rather than his current ability level. The feeling among many is that come Sunday's Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, the time is ripe to get him.

Your opinion of Lava Man is likely one of the key determining factors in how you attack Sunday's $1 pick four, which comprises races 7-10. The Pacific Classic is leg 2 of the wager - we must get past leg 1 first.

Race 7 - I'm going to make my stand here in the first leg - the Del Mar Mile on turf - and if I get past it, look out.

I firmly believe After Market is the best turf horse in the country. By a lot. Well, Out of Control gave him a significant scare in the Grade 1 Eddie Read on July 22. Out of Control was on the pace and burst clear by two into the lane. After Market, however, has jets few animals possess, and he blew on by. Still, Out of Control ran an exceptional race, validating his game win over none other than The Tin Man in the Grade 2 American Handicap at Hollywood on June 30. He's my single, though I fully admit Becrux, Crossing the Line, and Zann scare the dickens out of me.

Race 8 - This is the Pacific Classic. I'm not ready to say Lava Man is done. His Grade 1 Charles Whittingham run (when second to After Market) was excellent, and looks even better in light of what After Market did in the Read. His Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup win was a thing of beauty, not because it was like his powerhouse efforts of the past, but because it came from a horse who simply did not want to lose, like John Henry in the first Million, Personal Ensign in the BC Distaff, and Curlin in the Preakness. He may not be the same old Lava Man, but what if the Polytrack helps him pick up a step or two? It's not like he's facing Invasor or anyone like that here, so he's still a must-use.

Still, I must spread. I love the way the one-two finishers of the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap - Sun Boat and Awesome Gem - came home, showing an affinity for the track and giving the impression the more ground the better. Tiago is enormously talented, and to me he rates behind only Street Sense, Curlin, Any Given Saturday, and Hard Spun on the male 3-year-old pecking order. Albertus Maximus, another 3-year-old, chased Tiago in the Grade 2 Swaps at Hollywood Park on July 14 and was hardly embarrassed when second. He continues to develop and should love the trip. Three-year-olds have done quite nicely in this race over the years taking on their elders. That takes me five deep.

Race 9 - This optional claiming race at six furlongs is a complete scramble, which leaves the possibility of a nice price. If Out of Control wins the first leg, and if Lava Man wins leg 2 you're going to need a big number to make a score. This race can provide it. Relato del Gato can absolutely sizzle. His Phoenix Gold Cup win was extraordinary and if anyone tries to go with him they're in trouble. Of course, if they all take back they're in trouble, too. Air Ace hasn't run in more than a year, but that same scenario didn't stop him from winning at Hollywood in June 2006, after he had been gone 11 months. Quintons Shocker has done nothing wrong and comes off two fine turf sprints in stakes. You have already seen many a turf horse handle the move to the synthetic tracks quite nicely. Wind Water is rugged, and never runs a dull one. He comes off a good second at Hollywood, when beaten by a resurgent one-time champion Declan's Moon. Finally, my fifth runner here will be Men Only. All he did was come back here July 29 after nearly two months on the bench and blast some decent allowance runners in a manner that says he loves this track.

Race 10 - This is a 1 1/8-mile $40,000 claiming race on the turf. Mananan McLir still has plenty of gas in the tank at age 8. He was only fifth last time on Aug. 2 here, but that came vs. tougher rivals. He drops a notch, and note he beat this same caliber at this same nine-furlong trip at Hollywood. But best of all, this race sets up for him. There are a few speedsters in here, which should give him the hot, contested pace he likes. Two others who may benefit are both new acquisitions for trainer John Sadler. Black Jack Attack has speed, but he has also shown he can stalk and go. Chadlington dueled here July 21 and paid the price. But that's hardly his style. He's best from off the pace. Any or all of those three could fall into great trips.

So that makes my ticket 1x5x5x3 ($75), and regardless of whether it pans out I will be standing and cheering if Lava Man gets it done again.