Encounter With a Champion is the first of a 3-part series chronicling Catie Staszak's encounter with California champion Lava Man.
As I drove down the road toward Barn 19, I took in the sights and smells of Gulfstream Park’s stabling area.
A sleek, energetic Thoroughbred pranced sideways and threw its head up in the air as its handler gave a quick tug on its lead shank, reminding the horse to pay attention. Nearby, a groom jogged across the roadway pushing an overflowing wheelbarrow, full of hay rich in timothy and alfalfa; a veterinarian - clipboard in hand - stared intently as another stable hand jogged a filly down the concrete for a soundness evaluation; and a trainer gave his exercise rider a leg up onto a colt so he could walk the shedrow before the horse’s scheduled morning workout.
On a humid February morning in Hallandale, Fla., it seemed like business as usual at the track. A longtime competitive equestrian and student of horse racing, I was very familiar with the scene. But I could tell there was a little more excitement in the air in anticipation of the following day’s race, the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
Few events on the Gulfstream Park calendar generate more excitement than the Fountain of Youth. As one of the first major prep races for the Triple Crown, the race showcases horse racing’s most promising 3-year-old talent. And this year, the race held even more importance. Up for grabs was not only a $400,000 purse, but also 50 qualifying points toward a spot in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl of horse racing.
Millions of dollars in horseflesh would be stabled at Gulfstream prior to the race. There was Violence, the Fountain of Youth favorite; Cerro, the promising colt owned in part by Olympic hero Michael Phelps; and Speak Logistics, winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes.
I wasn’t there to see any of them.
As I came upon Barn 19, I immediately spotted him – the horse I had been following from afar for eight years. His long, black mane shone like silk, but even brighter was the red shadow roll on his already adjusted bridle. He stood alert in his stall, his large, inquisitive eyes looking outward at the busy backside scene around him. He was tacked in a western saddle and a curb bit, looking like the farthest thing from a racehorse. But I knew better. I was about to meet a champion.
I quickly parked my car, stepped out, and, accompanied by a Gulfstream Park security guard, walked across the roadway and to the horse’s stall. The horse’s ears pricked forward as I got closer. He stared me down, his eyes seemingly looking into my soul. As I stared back, I envisioned what it might be like to ride the magnificent animal. Followers of football never get to catch a pass from Peyton Manning and baseball fans never face a fastball from Justin Verlander, but here a horse racing legend stood before me, his saddle close enough to touch. I wanted to swing into that saddle, just once. Suddenly, the horse thrust his head into my chest in greeting, and I came back to reality. I smiled as I peeked into his stall and noticed the embroidered words written on his saddlecloth that confirmed his identity: Coach Lava Man.
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Rags to Riches
I was 15 years old when Lava Man etched his place in the horse racing history books. On June 6, 2007, the gutsy gelding won his third straight Hollywood Gold Cup by getting the nod over A. P. Xcellent in a photo finish in the $1 million race. Lava Man became just the second horse to win the race three times in a row (the first was Native Diver in 1967). That day I watched from my home in Boynton Beach, Fla., nearly 2,700 miles away from Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., but I willed Lava Man home as if I was the jockey on his back. I still remember announcer Vic Stauffer’s dramatic call that day.
“Lava Man, A. P. Xcellent, Big Booster, Lava Man …yes! Lava Man did it again by a nose!”
2007 HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP
I was first drawn to Lava Man due to his unlikely and inspiring (and literal) claim to fame. The gelding began his career as a racehorse running in claiming races, the lowest level races listed in the track condition book. Horses entered in claiming races run under a tag that specifies how much they can be purchased for. Anyone with an interest in owning a horse in a claiming race can place a claim on him or her before the race is run. Some horses can be purchased for as little as $5,000 or less at smaller racetracks. Horses that run in stakes races, meanwhile, are often sold privately for prices in the seven-figure range. It’s like comparing a Mazda to a Porsche.
Lava Man did not show much promise early in his career. In his very first race, his trainer at the time, Lonnie Arterburn, entered him in a modest $12,500 maiden claiming race for 2-year-olds. Lava Man was a non-threatening fourth that day, and he was not claimed. He would not get his first win until his fifth race, a maiden special weight at Golden Gate Fields, on Nov. 29, 2003.
Still, in his next seven races, Lava Man could only manage to find the winner’s circle twice, so that was why Arterburn entered him in a $50,000 claiming race in August 2004 at Del Mar.
And this time, Lava Man was claimed, and he transferred homes to the barn of trainer Doug O’Neill. Under O’Neill’s care, Lava Man completely turned his career around and shocked the racing world.
“He was just three years old when we got him, so he had every right to change,” O’Neill said. “The light bulb just went off.”
In addition to his three Hollywood Gold Cup wins, Lava Man won four other Grade 1 stakes races for his new connections, including the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap, the Pacific Classic Stakes, and the Santa Anita Handicap twice. In 2006, Lava Man won an astonishing seven of his eight starts, five in graded stakes. He was named California Horse of the Year in both 2005 and 2006 and retired with more than $5.2 million in earnings. To date, he is the all-time leading earner among former claiming horses and is the only horse to win a Grade 1 race on the three different track surfaces – dirt, turf, and synthetic.
“He’s the horse that put me on the map and gave me the confidence that if you have a good horse and you take care of them, they’ll win big for you,” O’Neill said.
The greatest claim in history? Few would argue it.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Catie Staszak's encounter with Thoroughbred great Lava Man.