Lava Man has had quite a journey since he ran seventh, beaten by 14-odd lengths in the Sunshine Millions Classic last January at Gulfstream Park.
The Slew City Slew gelding, 5 years old, bounced down the class ladder after that defeat, finally getting to the winner's circle in an optional claimer at Hollywood Park in May. That win started an "up" cycle that culminated in a victory over Borrego in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup and a close-up third in the Pacific Classic.
Then, Lava Man crashed. He was seventh in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, 45 lengths behind winner Borrego. Skipping the Breeders' Cup, trainer Doug O'Neill took him to Tokyo, where he ran 11th in the Japan Cup Dirt two months ago.
Saturday, it was a different story again as the Sunshine Millions Classic returned to Santa Anita.
After tracking the expected quick pace, jockey Corey Nakatani moved Lava Man toward the leaders three-wide on the turn, got to the front and drew off, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Whos Crying Now and Texcess also took the overland route around the tiring leaders to finish second and third. Last year's $60 Santa Anita Derby winner, Buzzards Bay, finished fourth. The 9 furlongs on a fast track took 1:49.98.
O'Neill, asked about doubters after Lava Man's last two races, said, "I was one of them. You never know. Sure, he was training great but after they run a couple clunkers. ... But he finally ran like he has been training."
Asked if he will try the Santa Anita Handicap on March 4, O'Neill said, "I think so. We're not anxious to ship after the experience with him in Japan."
The Classic was the highlight of an eight-race program pitting California-breds against Florida-breds with half the races at Santa Anita and the others sharing time with construction crews at Gulfstream Park. The other results from the highly successful effort:
--At Gulfstream, Jerry Bailey finished second in his career finale, unable to find running room for Silver Tree until the $500,000 Cloverleaf Farms Turf Stakes was all but over. Silver Tree chased Miesque's Approval to the wire, 3/4 lengths behind. Icy Atlantic was third. The 9 furlongs over turf went in 1:44.81. Winning trainer Marty Wolfson, despite the 50-1 odds on his steed, said he "loved this horse today. He got very sick last November and I had to take him to the hospital. But since I've had him back, he's been training good for the past month."
--In the day's other turf event, Moscow Burning, overcame a stumbling start and traffic issues, rallied wide into the stretch and was up in plenty of time to win the $500,000 Warren's Thoroughbred Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, scoring by 1 1/2 length over Beneficial Bartok. Charmsil was third. Moscow Burning, the favorite, got the 9 furlongs in 1:48.39 under David Flores. She is a 6-year-old daughter of Moscow Ballet. "David had me scared to death," said winning trainer James Cassidy. "I thought we were going to get trapped big time. I think this is as good a race as she could have ever run, as much as she had to do -- go wide and give away all that space."
--House of Fortune was easily the best in the $500,000 Ocala Breeders' Sales Distaff at Gulfstream, taking charge when asked by jockey Patrick Valenzuela and winning off by 6 1/2 lengths over Sweet Lips. The favorite, Dream of Summer, was third. House of Fortune, a 5-year-old daughter of Free House, ran 9 furlongs in 1:49.33. Trainer Ron McAnally said House of Fortune "has had little problems here and there in her races" but everything came together Saturday. Added Valenzuela, "She didn't break the best today and I had to take her back. But she relaxed. On the turn, I saw an opening and I took it. She went right in there and took off right away."
--Bordonaro got the lead turning for home in the $300,000 Padua Stables Sprint at Gulfstream, then had all he could do to hang on, beating Tacirring by a rapidly diminishing 3/4 length at the wire. Bushwacker was third. Bordonaro, a 5-year-old Memo gelding, got the 6 furlongs in a quick 1:08.57 with Valenzuela at the controls. "I think he's one of the best sprinters in the country," said Valenzuela. "He kept on his left lead and I really didn't try to make him switch. I just kept him going about his business."
--Hot Storm got the jump on eight rivals in the $300,000 Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita and odds-on favorite Western Hemisphere couldn't make up any ground in the stretch. At the wire, Hot Storm was a 1 3/4-length winner with Thrilling Victory turning in a not-so-thrilling third. Hot Storm, a 4-year-old daughter of Stormy Atlantic, got the 6 furlongs in 1:09.44 under David Flores. "She broke well and I was expecting a lot more speed from the outside," Flores said. "But when my filly took the lead, she started looking around and nobody else was sending, so I was very comfortable."
--Da Stoops ran off and hid from seven rivals in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita. Jockey Victor Espinoza found himself 7 1/2 lengths out front at the wire, with Changing Weather second and Brite Maneuvers third. Da Stoops, a Cal-bred son of Distorted Humor, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.94, ridden out, and is one to pay some attention to in the coming months. "This colt's got some serious gears," said winning trainer Bob Baffert. "He's really fast." The final time was second fastest of the meeting after Too Much Bling's 1:08.59 in the San Miguel.
--Back in Florida, Joint Effort came from well off the pace to take the $250,000 Ocala Stud Oaks. With Mark Guidry riding, the Runaway Groom filly came to the outside after a ground-saving run, got the lead with a furlong to go and won by 2 1/2 lengths over A Sea Trippi. Lake Alice was third. The 6 furlongs took 1:09.49. Trainer Dale Romans said he always has thought longer distances for Join Effort, "but we shortened her up at Churchill with this race in mind. We'll start thinking longer distances again. But, for now, we're just going to regroup before we get back to Kentucky."
Races with potential Kentucky Derby implications:
-- Cause to Believe rallied smartly through the stretch to win Sunday's $250,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows in northern California. Objective was 3/4 length back in second and Bold Chieftain was third. The favorite, A.P. Warrior, was rank in the early going and settled for fourth. Russell Baze rode Cause to Believe, a Maria's Mon colt, over 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.81. Winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said Cause to Believe's owner had not seriously considered the Kentucky Derby trail before the Sunday race. "That could very well change," he said afterward.
-- R Loyal Man sat right off the pace through the first 5 furlongs of Saturday's $75,000 Pasco Stakes for 3-year-olds at Tampa Bay Downs, went by and went on to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Electrify was second and the favorite, Doc Cheney, finished an even third. R Loyal Man, a Kentucky-bred son of More than Ready, got 7 furlongs in 1:22.55 under Manoel Cruz. Winning trainer Tim Ritvo said he is eying Tampa's Sam F. Davis on Feb. 18 and the Tampa Bay Derby on March 18. "Our only other thought is the Swale at Gulfstream. However, I think we would have to lean this way, given the way this colt handles the track here," Ritvo said.
In other weekend racing:
Behaving Badly couldn't have behaved any better in Sunday's $250,000 Santa Monica Handicap for fillies and mares. Breaking on top, the 5-year-old, New York-bred Pioneering mare romped home a 4 1/2-lengths winner, running 7 furlongs in 1:21.93 under Victor Espinoza. Miss Terrible was second and Leave Me Alone completed the "bad actors" trifecta. "There was never any real concern," said Espinoza. Trainer Bob Baffert, however, said the 7-furlong trip might be the outside limit for Behaving Badly. "I'm just glad she ran today like she's been working," he said.
Also Sunday, Cambiocorsa rolled down the hillside turf course to post a 1 1/2-length win over Sweet Ambition in the $75,000 Wishing Well Handicap. Elusive Diva, the odds-on favorite, was third. Cambiocorsa, a 4-year-old Avenue of Flags filly, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:12.42.
Hotstufanthensome bounced back from a near-miss second in the Fort Lauderdale Handicap to win Sunday's $100,000 Mac Diarmida Handicap by 1 length over Go Deputy. Honor in War was third. Hotstufanthensome, a 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding, lurked near the back of the pack until asked for run on the final turn by jockey Rajiv Maragh. Circling four-wide, the gelding quickly went to the fore and held on for the win. The 1 3/8 mile on firm turf took 2:10.90. "Today we were in there against some very good horses," said Maragh. "But they ran very fast the first part of it. My horse got a clean trip and that's why he won."
Promenade Girl caught pace-setting Princess Pelonia in the stretch run of Saturday's $85,000 Nellie Morse Stakes for fillies and mares and went on to win the 1 3/4 lengths. Princess Pelonia held on for second-place money and Ask Queenie was third. Promenade Girl, the odds-on favorite, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.58 with Erick Rodriguez in the irons. The winner is a 4-year-old, Maryland-bred filly by Carson City. "I was a little worried where we were early," said winning trainer Larry Murray. "But this is a classy filly and she does what she has to do." The filly has five wins from eight lifetime starts, including three stakes wins.
Bishop Hill Court was quickly in front in Saturday's $65,000 Paumonok Handicap and stayed there, winning by 1 length over Spooky Mulder. The favorite, Wild Jam, was third with a late run on the outside. Bishop Hill Court, a 6-year-old Holy Bull gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.47 for jockey Jose Santos.
Yucatan got out to an uncontested lead in Saturday's $50,000 Forego Stakes, then just held on to beat late-running favorite Saintly Look by a neck. Eyeforglory finished third. Yucatan, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Favorite Trick, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:18.86 with Gregory Schaefer aboard. Winning trainer Sherman Mitchell, noting the quick early fractions, said, "I wasn't worried at all. He's got plenty of speed."
Bang shot out of the starting gate in Saturday's $50,000 Budweiser Handicap and was never headed, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over The Niner Account. Dangerous Devon was a non-threatening third. Bang is a 6-year-old, California-bred gelding by Ballistic Billy. Tony Noguez rode 5 furlongs on a fast track in 56.22 seconds.
Wildcat Bettie B outdueled Rich Fantasy in the stretch run to win Saturday's $50,000 Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a neck. Gasia was well back in third. Wildcat Bettie B, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Meadowlake, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:12.24 on a sloppy track with Terry Thompson in the irons.
Twenty-seven countries are represented in the nominees for the Dubai World Cup card on March 25. Among them are marquee names already known as winners of some of the world's top events -- including Flower Alley, Grey Swallow, Alexander Goldrun, Kane Hekili, Heart's Cry, Cesario, Ouija Board, Shirocco, Cape of Good Hope, Attila's Storm and Grand Emporium. "The nominations for all seven races on Dubai World Cup Day look extremely strong," said Frank Gabriel, chief executive officer of the Dubai Racing Club. "With 27 countries represented, it shows just how important to global racing the Dubai World Cup and the Dubai International Racing Carnival have become -- and will continue to be."
Eclipse Awards. There were no surprises in the announcement of the 2005 Eclipse Awards. Saint Liam was chosen as both Horse of the Year and top older male horse. Stevie Wonderboy and Folklore were the 2-year-old honorees. Afleet Alex held on to win the 3-year-old male award and Smuggler was top 3-year-old filly. Ashado was named top older female, Lost in the Fog the top sprinter, Leroidesanimaux beat Artie Shiller 119-116 to be top male turf horse and Intercontinental was top female grass runner. McDynamo won the steeplechase Eclipse. The human awards were: Owner, Michael Gill; breeder, Adena Springs; trainer, Todd Pletcher; jockey, John Velazquez; apprentice jockey, Emma-Jayne Wilson.
News and notes: Bailey's exit from riding was hastened by a paddock kick in the hip from his last mount, Silver Tree, who finished second in the Cloverleaf Farms Turf at Gulfstream Park. "If I weren't in so much pain going into the gate," Bailey said of his last ride, "I probably would have broken down. The crowd has been beautiful. I just hope more of them bet to place than to win."