With Lava Man, it's not how good he is so much as it's the track where he's asked to run.
Invincible in California -- but a flop in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last fall -- Lava Man returned to California and to glory in Saturday's $500,000 Sunshine Millions San Miguel Indian Bingo and Casino Turf Stakes at Santa Anita.
The race was a fixture of the highly successful annual showdown between California-breds and Florida-breds, with four races run at Gulfstream Park and four at Santa Anita -- all restricted to horses bred in either of those two "sunshine" states.
Hey, it's something to do while their frozen fans are waiting for the Bears and the Colts to play the Super Bowl -- in Florida!
Lava Man has won virtually every major race in California on both grass and dirt. Saturday, he did it again. As the odds-on favorite while returning to the green course, the 6-year-old, California-bred son of Slew City Slew stalked a moderate pace down the backstretch, moved into contention on the turn and took charge in the stretch run, winning by 2 lengths over Icy Atlantic. Go Between completed the trifecta.
Lava Man, with Corkey Nakatani up, ran the 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:47.60.
"Horses, they train on tracks," Nakatani explained, "and when they get to Churchill Downs, horses just don't run their best races there. It's a fact he had to deal with and he didn't like it."
Still, Nakatani added, "There's no question he's the best horse I've been on. There hasn't been a horse that's taken me on the ride that this horse has."
Trainer Doug O'Neill said he is still considering the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3. But he added either of the $5 million grass races on the Dubai World Cup card March 31 could be a possibility.
In other Sunshine Millions races at Santa Anita:
-- Mistical Plan had to wait behind traffic on the turn in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks, then came out into the stretch and was just up in time to win by a nose over Tiz Elemental. Double Major completed the trifecta. Mistical Plan, a Cal-bred daughter of Game Plan, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.50. David Flores rode for trainer Doug O'Neill. "I wasn't sure she got the (head) bob," said O'Neill. "You always want to be a little negative so you don't get double-kicked if you don't get it."
-- Joint Effort came from off the pace to take the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff, drawing clear in the stretch to beat the favorite, Take D' Tour, by 5 easy lengths. Getback Time finished third. Joint Effort, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred filly by Runaway Groom, completed the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.36 for rider Eddie Castro. "I just stayed in behind the speed horse past the three-eighths," Castro said, "and at the top of the stretch, I was very confident." Winning trainer Dale Romans said he doesn't have a next trace picked out for Joint Effort. "But I'm sure it will have something to do with Churchill Downs," he added.
-- Smokey Stover stalked the pace in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Padua Stables Sprint, got to the front at the top of the stretch and drew clear, winning by 3 1/4 lengths over Proud Tower Too. The favorite, Bordonaro, finished third. Smokey Stover, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred gelding by Put It Back, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:08.03 under Aaron Gryder. He is trained by Greg Gilchrist, who also handled the late champion sprinter Lost in the Fog. Winning owner Harry Aleo said of Smokey Stover, "When he first came onto the race track, Greg wasn't sure who was better - him or Lost in the Fog. Greg's done a great job with him." He added, "I hope Greg's going to stretch him out soon."
At Gulfstream Park:
-- The marquee event of the day -- the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic, drew a diverse, 12-horse field with 2006 Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint going to the post as the favorite despite drawing the outside gate. But it was a pair of extreme long shots-- McCann's Mojave and Summer Book -- first and second under the wire, with Silver Wagon completing a $1 trifecta that returned $7,147.30. McCann's Mojave, a 7-year-old, California-bred son of Memo, pressed the pace, took charge in the lane and won by 3/4 length, finishing the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.89 under Frank Alvarado. Sweetnorthernsaint also stalked the pace but couldn't overcome the bad post, fading to finish fifth. "I guess it was the change of scenery," said winning trainer Stephen Sprecht. "I don't know that I've done anything special since getting this horse (in November). He's a good horse to train." Sweetnorthernsaint's trainer, Michael Trombetta, said his charge "just didn't have it today. All that matters now is that he comes back all right and lives to fight another day."
-- Miss Shop came from well back in a field of 12 to win the $500,000 Sunshine Million Filly and Mare Turf, beating Memorette by 1 1/4 lengths. Charmsil was third and the favorite, Bayou's Lassie, finished fourth. Miss Shop, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred filly by Deputy Minister, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.69 with Rafael Bejarano up. "She likes to come from off the pace and that's what happened," said winning trainer Allen Jerkens. "The way she came around them, she had to be the best to win today."
-- In the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, Shaggy Mane was sent quickly to the front by jockey Mark "She Run Good" Guidry, and simply extended her advantage to win by 7 3/4 lengths over Swap Fliparoo. Hot Storm was third under the wire and the favorite, May Day Vow, finished a fading seventh. Shaggy Mane, a 4-year-old, California-bred daughter of Bertrando, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.31. "It was a runaway, just like the Bears in the Super Bowl," said winning trainer Don Chatlos Jr. "We'll sit down and see where we go next." Added Guidry, "She took me to the front. That's the way she is."
-- Storm in May stormed down the stretch to win the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash for 3-year-olds by 1 1/4 length over Idiot Proof. Texas Voyager finished third. Storm in May, a Florida-bred son of Tiger Ridge, got the 6 furlongs in 1:10.22 with Manoel Cruz in the irons. "He broke sharp from the gate," Cruz said. "I sat low and with patience, because I knew he would give me one big run in the end." Winning trainer Bill Kaplan said he is "aiming for the Hallandale Beach back on the grass. But this horse might end up on the Derby trail yet. The Fountain of Youth is not out of the question."
In other weekend racing:
Discreet Cat apparently will get a chance this year to show what he can do. Undefeated last year in an extremely cautious campaign for Godolphin Racing, the 4-year-old son of Forestry is being pointed to the Dubai World Cup on March 31. "We've got plenty of options," said Godolphin Racing Manager Simon Crisford. "But the plan at this time is to prepare him for the Dubai World Cup." Discreet Cat last year won the UAE Derby and was considered a Kentucky Derby prospect. Instead, he was held out of the tough 3-year-old races and returned to Dubai after winning the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.
Pussycat Doll returned from a long layoff to post a handy victory in Sunday's $250,000 Santa Monica Handicap. Rallying from mid-pack, the 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Real Quiet got through traffic leaving the turn and rolled down the stretch authoritatively, finishing 4 lengths in front, ridden out. Nossa Cancao was best of the rest, with Secret Scheme third. Pussycat Doll, with Garrett Gomez riding for trainer Bob Baffert, covered the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.32. The mare had not raced since winning the Humana Distaff on Derby Day at Churchill Downs last spring. "When you have a really good one like this," Baffert said, "you have to take care of it. It takes patience. She looked really fantastic in the paddock. I had a feeling she had them over a barrel but she's just a very good mare." Added owner Mike Pegram, "Now I know why we didn't breed her."
Also Sunday, Attima rallied nicely in the stretch to win the $75,000 Wishing Well Handicap for fillies and mares by 1 3/4 lengths over Somethinaboutbetty. Wild Storm was home third. Attima, a 4-year-old, British-bred filly by Zafonic, ran 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course in 1:12.62 with Victor Espinoza at the controls for trainer Julio Canani.
Golden Gate Fields
Bwana Bull took charge in the stretch drive of Sunday's $150,000 California Derby, drawing off to win by 5 lengths over the favorite, Boutrous. Chief's Magic finished third. Bwana Bull, a Kentucky-bred colt by Holy Bull, settled behind the early leaders down the backstretch and made his move three-wide on the turn. With David Lopez in the irons for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, Bwana Bull covered 1 1/16 mile on a "good" main track in 1:44.70.
Ramazutti stayed close to the lead in Sunday's $150,000, 1 3/8-mile Mac Diarmida Handicap, moved to the lead with a furlong to run and edged clear. At the wire, the 5-year-old, Maryland-bred Honor Grades gelding was 1 1/4 length ahead of the runner-up, Dreadnaught. Interpatation finished third and the favorite, Bee Charmer, faded to finish last of 12. Ramazutti, with John Velazquez up, was clocked in 2:11.86.
Z Z Dome led almost all the way in Saturday's $12,000 Pepsi Cola Handicap for 3-year-old New Mexico-breds, then held on at the end to win by a neck over Shaken the Cage. Colorofrun finished third. Z Z Dome, a son of Dome, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:12.97 with Duane Starling up.
Buddy Got Even, a 5-year-old son of 1999 GalleryFurniture.Com Stakes winner Stephen Got Even, rallied from last of eight to upset Saturday's $50,000 Forego Stakes. With a four-wide move around the turn, Buddy Got Even rallied past the leaders to win by 3 lengths over Will He Shine, who then was disqualified to third behind Outrageouslyfunny. The stewards ruled Outrageouslyfunny was hit by the whip wielded by Will He Shine's jockey, Miguel Mena. Buddy Got Even ran the 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.87 under Alonso Qunionez. (GalleryFurniture.Com Stakes was the one-year name of the race formerly known as the Spiral Stakes and the Jim Beam Stakes, now known as the Lane's End Stakes).
Tampa Bay Downs
Barkley Sound pressed the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Pasco Stakes for 3-year-olds, engaged the leader down the stretch and gained the advantage in the late going, winning by 1 length. Steelix finished second with Dippi Trippi third and the favorite, Got the Last Laugh, fifth under the wire. Barkely Sound, a Florida-bred colt by Dixieland Band, ran the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.31 for jockey Enrique Jurando.
Devil House was pushed along behind a quick pace early in Saturday's $50,000 Dixie Belle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then sent to the front turning for home and won by 1/2 length over Cat On a Cloud. Time's Mistress was third home. Devil House, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Chester House, ran 6 furlongs under Terry Thompson in 1:11.63.
Lexi Star rallied from mid-pack to win Saturday's $60,000 Nellie Morse Stakes by 1 3/4 length over It's True Love. The favorite, Yolanda B. Too, raced evenly to finish third. Lexi Star is a 5-year-old, Maryland-bred mare by Crypto Star, my 1997 Kentucky Derby selection (he ran fifth, behind Silver Charm). Lexi Star ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.75.
Probation Ready rallied through the stretch to win Saturday's $75,000 Black Gold Stakes for 3-year-olds by 1 3/4 lengths over Pete the Poet. Tainted Money finished third. Probation Ready, a Kentucky-bred colt by More Than Ready, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:05.86 for jockey Robby Albarado. Steve Asmussen trains the colt for Vinery Stables.
Bishop Court Hill had things all his own way in Saturday's $65,000 Paumonok Handicap, charging straight to the lead and running off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Attilla's Storm, the odds-on favorite, made a bid in deep stretch but couldn't come close. Super Fuse was third. Bishop Court Hill, a 7-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Holy Bull, ran the 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in1:09.20 with Jose Santos up.
News and Notes:
If this year's two-day, 11-race Breeders' Cup program still isn't enough for you, just wait. Breeders' Cup and NTRA honcho Greg Avioli told the Asian Racing Conference meeting in Dubai this past week he envisions 16 races with $30 million in purses by the year 2010. "We want to make it the greatest meeting in the world," Avioli said.