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The history of horse racing is filled with rags-to-riches stories of jockeys, trainers, and horses that rise from humble beginnings to achieve success at the highest levels of the sport.
Few such stories can compare with that of the remarkable gelding Lava Man, who went from claimer to Hall of Famer to dominate California horse racing for much of three unforgettable years.
Lava Man had a blend of talent and versatility that comes along very rarely; some might argue there has never been a horse with a greater combination of both than Lava Man. In the United States, horse racing is conducted on dirt, grass, and synthetic tracks, and Lava Man is the only horse in history to win Grade 1 races on all three surfaces. He was so naturally fast that he frequently set the pace in his races, but if another horse wanted the early lead, Lava Man was perfectly content to take back and rally in the stretch.
Lava Man’s incredible talent, however, wasn’t obvious from the start. As a son of Slew City Slew out of a mare by Nostalgia’s Star, the California-bred Lava Man didn’t have the most fashionable pedigree, which may have been one reason why he started his career in a 4 ½-furlong, $12,500 maiden claiming race at Stockton, a county fair track in California. Sent off at odds of 35.50-1, Lava Man trailed the field early on before rallying to finish fourth, beaten by 3 ¾ lengths. It was an inauspicious beginning, and his next two starts — a third and a fifth in similar maiden claiming races — did little to dispel the notion that Lava Man was nothing special.
But when given a try going a mile on turf, Lava Man took a big step forward, finishing second in a maiden special weight race at Bay Meadows Race Course. From there, he showed flashes of talent and potential, winning a couple of minor races and disappointing in a couple of tougher ones, until the fateful day came when he was entered in a $50,000 claiming race at Del Mar on Aug. 13, 2004. He ran well, finishing second in an eight-horse field, and he was claimed by trainer Doug O’Neill to race for the partnership of STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood.
Lava Man’s rise through the ranks was about to begin.
In his first start for his new connections, Lava Man returned to dirt and won the Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex Park, taking command in the stretch and pulling away to win decisively. Three more solid performances in stakes races followed before Lava Man took a big step up in class and tackled the seven-eighths of a mile, Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Lava Man had never run in a graded stakes race, let alone a Grade 1, but outperformed the expectations of most racing fans when he rallied to finish second, beaten by just a half-length by Rock Hard Ten.
As a 4-year-old in 2005, Lava Man started off slowly. He opened the year with three disappointing efforts in restricted and state-bred stakes races, never finishing better than fifth, but then he made a big turnaround. In an allowance race at Hollywood Park, he tracked the pace before winning easily in a confidence builder, then pulled off an 8.70-1 upset in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes, winning the 1 1/8-mile race by a length in the fast time of 1:47.83 seconds.
Suddenly, it seemed like the light had gone on. With 23 starts under his belt, Lava Man was at the point where the talent level of most racehorses is readily apparent, but Lava Man wasn’t like most horses. Perhaps some considered his win in the Californian a fluke, but that was far from the case. Instead, Lava Man came back even better in the 1 ¼-mile, Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, which he won by a stunning 8 ¾ lengths in the brilliant time of 1:59.63.
2005 HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP
But just as quickly as he had risen to stardom, Lava Man seemed to regress. In the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes one month later, he got involved in a battle for the lead and wound up finishing third, then ended the season with a pair of distant defeats in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup when shipping to Belmont Park — his first start outside of California — and the Japan Cup Dirt.
As the year came to an end, racing fans wondered what to expect from Lava Man in 2006. To that point, his career had been a mixture of brilliant performances and great disappointments. After showing early talent on turf, he now seemed superior on dirt. Would his inconsistency get the better of him?
With his performances on the track, Lava Man answered that question with a definite no.
From January through October 2006, Lava Man was unbeatable; to his rivals, he must have seemed like a rainbow, always a few steps ahead no matter how hard they tried to catch him. The $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic was his first target and he won it with complete ease. While he had to work a little harder in the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap, he won that in a fast time, too. Then — with plenty of time to spare between California’s major races for older horses — Lava Man gave turf a try and won the 1 1/8-mile TVG Khaled Stakes in the almost unheard of time of 1:44.26 seconds, a course record and not far off the world record.
From there, it seemed like there was nothing Lava Man couldn’t do.
He won the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap on turf by two lengths; a second straight renewal of the Hollywood Gold Cup by a nose; the Pacific Classic by 2 ½ lengths; and the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap by 2 ¼ lengths, with 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo finishing a well-beaten third. Lava Man might have won Horse of the Year honors if not for a seventh-place finish in the that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
2006 HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP
A few more highlights awaited in 2007. After winning the Sunshine Millions Turf and a second straight edition of the Santa Anita Handicap, Lava Man shipped to Dubai and finished last in the Dubai Duty Free. Another defeat followed in the Whittingham Memorial, and Lava Man seemed to be slowing down. As the Hollywood Gold Cup approached, there were surely questions as Lava Man prepared for a historic third straight victory in the prestigious race. The 2007 Hollywood Gold Cup would be run on a synthetic track and, as versatile as Lava Man had been, the question was could he handle the new surface at a point in his career when he seemed to be declining?
When A. P. Xcellent led the way while setting a slow pace in the Hollywood Gold Cup, it didn’t look promising. When Lava Man challenged the leader with a quarter-mile left to run, A. P. Xcellent turned him back and maintained his lead.
But one last time, Lava Man reminded the world that champion horses can come from anywhere. Even with an unfamiliar surface under his feet and dozens of miles of racing behind him, Lava Man’s courage and determination never wavered. In the final strides, with jockey Corey Nakatani urging him on, Lava Man seemed to dig deep and find something extra.
By all logic, Lava Man shouldn’t have won … but then again, logic never seemed to apply to Lava Man. As the crowd cheered and racing fans watched in amazement, Lava Man and A. P. Xcellent crossed the finish line together with almost nothing between them. The finish was too close to call for many, but not for Nakatani; moments after the wire, he raised his whip in triumph.
For the third straight year, Lava Man had won the Hollywood Gold Cup.
2007 HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP
This glorious moment would mark Lava Man’s final victory. He ended the year with three sixth-place finishes in stakes races; in 2008, he showed flashes of his old brilliance when third by a neck in the Whittingham Memorial, but after a sixth-place finish in the Eddie Read Handicap, ankle issues led to his retirement.
He was scheduled to be sent to Old Friends in Kentucky to enjoy a peaceful life in a pasture, but Lava Man didn’t seem to care for this lifestyle, and after receiving stem cell therapy that healed his ankles, Lava Man was put back into training. He thrived with his return to a daily schedule of exercise and made a brief comeback, finishing last in the 2009 San Gabriel Handicap before being retired for good.
But the racing life is in Lava Man’s blood, and he can still be seen at racetracks in California, where he serves as a stable pony for O’Neill. In 2012, he was back in the headlines again as he accompanied I’ll Have Another through a campaign that included victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and he did the same with Hot Rod Charlie on the 2021 Triple Crown trail. For a horse like Lava Man, it’s hard to picture a more fitting ending.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.
- Lava Man retired with a record of 17 wins, 8 seconds, and 5 thirds from 47 starts, with earnings of $5,268,706, the fourth-highest total ever accumulated by a California-bred horse.
- Lava Man’s three straight wins in the Hollywood Gold Cup equaled the record set by Native Diver in the 1960s.
- During the course of his career, Lava Man won seven Grade 1 races and placed in four more.
- Lava Man was guided to most of his major wins by jockey Corey Nakatani, but was ridden by a total of 13 jockeys during his career.
- Lava Man’s highest Beyer Speed Figure was a massive 120, earned for the 2005 Hollywood Gold Cup win.
- Lava Man was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2015.