12/27/2009 12:00AM

Will there be a happy ending?

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Doug O'Neill says he is hopeful Lava Man's competitive spirit will translate into a good effort when he makes his first start since July 2008 in Sunday's San Gabriel Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Lava Man is back, again. Two weeks after rain and track condition postponed his comeback, the former retiree returns Sunday against a field he once might have trounced.

But once upon a time is a long time ago for an 8-year-old gelding whose storybook career seemingly ended 17 months ago. Lava Man was retired from racing in July 2008 after seven Grade 1 victories and more than $5 million in earnings.

Sunday at Santa Anita, by the wonder of science, Lava Man returns in the Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on grass.

Seven horses entered the $150,000 race, including likely favorite Loup Breton. Whether Lava Man wins or loses, he is the story. And the reported physical improvement in his ankle cartilage after months of stem-cell therapy gave owners Steve Kenly and Jason Wood and trainer Doug O'Neill reason to bring him out of retirement.

"He's showing all the competitiveness he has in the past," O'Neill said, recognizing that morning workouts and afternoon races are not the same. In the San Gabriel, O'Neill said, "I'm looking for him to show a lot of grit and heart in the lane, like he has in training. And I love that it is a grass race."

Lava Man was entered Dec. 12 in the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park, where he won three Gold Cups from 2005 to 2007. But when rain turned the Cushion Track into something other than the dry surface on which Lava Man trained, O'Neill scratched and pointed Lava Man to next available race, on a surface O'Neill preferred all along.

"We were trying to get a grass race written for him [before the Native Diver]," O'Neill said. "It's a lot easier to come back on grass because generally the first half- or three-quarters are so much easier than the main track. On grass, it's positioning and come flying home."

Tyler Baze regains the mount on Lava Man, whose most recent victory was more than two years ago in the 2007 Hollywood Gold Cup. O'Neill expects an honest effort first start back.

While indications are Lava Man is healthy and happy, a comeback win seems unlikely against racing-fit horses including 2008 San Gabriel winner Proudinsky, Hollywood Derby third-place finisher Acclamation, allowance winner Great Siege, and the formidable Loup Breton.

Julio Canani trains Loup Breton, a Group 2 winner in France who was hammered to 4-5 in his U.S. debut in an allowance on Nov. 19 at Hollywood.

"I ran him just to see where I was with him," Canani said. "Yes, he answered."

Garrett Gomez rode Loup Breton to a 1 3/4-length victory and told Canani, "He won very easy." Loup Breton won with plenty left and has trained extremely well since.

"He's a good horse, he ran second to the best horses over there," Canani said referring to the 5-year-old's European form. Loup Breton has won 4 of 19 and finished second in a Group 1 in April. He reportedly bled overseas, which was why he was sent to the U.S.

Although Loup Breton won his U.S. debut at the San Gabriel distance of 1 1/8 miles, Canani said he believes the horse wants longer.

"I think he's a mile-and-a-quarter, mile-and-three-eighths horse," Canani said.

Proudinsky recently finished fourth in the Grade 1 Citation Handicap at 1 1/16 miles, and benefits by the longer distance and class drop into the Grade 2 San Gabriel. Humberto Ascanio trains the 6-year-old, who won the San Gabriel last year while trained by the late Bobby Frankel.

The pace of the San Gabriel could be set by Acclamation, who was cross-entered in an allowance race on Saturday. If Acclamation scratches, Lava Man probably would inherit the pacesetting chores.

Cherokee Artist and Sir Dave are also entered. The San Gabriel is race 7 on a nine-race card.