Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lava Man: Doing what's right by the horse

When I decided to get into the racehorse business, even on a limited scale, I was immediately faced with a values-judgment.

If presented a tough decision -- one where my personal goal of breeding and owning winners or selfish interest of saving or making money was potentially at odds with what was best for the horse -- would I do right by me, or right by the horse?

I chose the latter. And regardless what decisions I might make for my breeding stock, foals or racehorses in the future, and whether those moves work out brilliantly or tragically, I vow that a bad ending will never have been the result of my putting the horse's best interests second.

A lot has been said and written -- by people with a clue and probably a few people without -- in the wake of confirmation this week that the greatest ex-claimer of all-time, Lava Man, is back in the Hollywood Park barn of trainer Doug O'Neill, and working toward a potential comeback at the races.

These comments on a TVG Network message board are typical of those flying around the Internet:

"One would think that earning over $5 million would guarantee a happy retirement. I guess I'm wrong. It smells of greed to me."

"If Lava Man came back on the cheap, it would be the worst racing story I've heard in a long time. Can you imagine the uproar over a horse that earned millions of dollars for his owners coming back so he can be 'rescued' by a group of really well-intended individuals so the current owners can cut their losses on this hard-knocking gelding?"

Or over at

"I guess $5 million isn't enough."

"What a shame. What about the horse's welfare?"

"Highlighting the industry's greed and an owner's seeming lack of concern for a horse that brought him millions of dollars -- fan favorite at that."

O.K., not everybody's against the comeback. Some people are at least hopeful that the horse can compete and will stay safe.

And one person cracked a good joke: "I heard they tried to change his name to Favre."

But what about those critics? The ones who allege greed and hard-heartedness without knowing much or anything about either the horse or the men around him?

If I were Doug O'Neill or among the ownership group of STD Racing and Jason Wood, it would take every ounce of restraint I could muster not to inform them all of the departure time for the next bus to hell.

O'Neill has been far more diplomatic.

He has tried to address the allegations of greed by saying that, if and when Lava Man runs, all the trainer's earnings will be donated to the California Retirement Management Account, which helps rehabilitate, retrain and "rehome" ex-racers.

But aside from that pledge, ask yourself what O'Neill stands to gain by racing Lava Man against what he stands to lose -- which is every ounce of goodwill among the racing fan base that his long and successful career, particularly his handling of such a popular horse, has ever earned him.

What cash value would you place on being known as a heartless bastard for the rest of your life?

So maybe Lava Man's comeback doesn't have jack squat to do with whatever money the horse can earn by racing.

Maybe it has everything to do with what's right by the horse.

Many human athletes have a terrible time letting go at the end of their careers; hence the "Favre" reference. Some of them are washed up, but still won't "hang 'em up," and the only thing that spares them further embarrassment is the fact that nobody will sign them to a contract anymore. And some of them are 39 years old and 2-0 anyway after a pair of season-opening road wins, with three TD passes and no interceptions.

Anyone who has been around racehorses, or who knows anyone who's really been around racehorses, knows that some of these old campaigners are the same way. Ever since they were sent off to be broken, breezed and gate-trained, their life revolved around the daily routine of racing. Take that away from an 8-year-old gelding who has known no other life since he was a long yearling and, for some of them, it's like you've robbed them of the very air they breathe.

Lava Man was initially retired not because he became disinterested in trying, but because his ankles were showing signs of trouble.

"I'm happy that he didn't get hurt, just aches and pains of old age," said one of his owners, Steve Kenly, at the time. "I think we did the right thing of looking at all the options and making sure this was the right thing to do."

So do you really think that these men just up and changed their minds? Or is it more likely that Lava Man changed their minds?

Since finishing sixth in July 2008 in the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar, Lava Man underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his ankles at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif. He has been stabled at nearby Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, to facilitate his rehabilitation. And veterinarians say Lava Man has benefited from pioneering stem cell treatments that drew thriving cells from the horse's own sternum and injected them into his ankles.

O'Neill says Lava Man seems to have "the ankles of a 3-year-old" again.

"The doctor said that he is and will be the strongest horse in my barn," O'Neill said. "I couldn't put into words how good he looks and how happy he seems to be back in training."

Why can't we be satisfied with those nine words as an explanation for Lava Man's comeback? "How happy he seems to be back in training."

Though Lava Man fired a 36-second bullet drill, best of 24 at the 3-furlong distance, in his return to O'Neill's work tab, he truly might never race. O'Neill has said he's "a little nervous" because he is "very conscious of my responsibility ... as (Lava Man's) caretaker." And the trainer said he only intends to run Lava Man against Grade 1 competition, if and when the horse proves himself ready.

"I'm going to make sure we do right by the horse, first and foremost," O'Neill said.

That's a very high standard to set. And who knows, maybe Lava Man would just as soon race-on even if it isn't under the brightest spotlight. Perhaps he'd be content to follow in the hoofprints of a horse like Proven Cure, who was still winning and placing in modest overnight stakes races at tracks like Lone Star, Sam Houston and Remington Park when he was 11 and 12 years old. A horse doesn't continue to try like that unless he just flat-out loves the game.

I'm confident, especially after reading his comments, that O'Neill is looking for any little sign that Lava Man can't do the job, and will stop him short rather than push him too far. And if Lava Man decides he doesn't want to race anymore, he'll tell O'Neill, in no uncertain terms.

But if the horse wants to race, let him race.

Yes, bad things happen in this game even to very good horses in very good condition. And, yes, it will be a crying shame if Lava Man, un-retired, suffers a catastrophic breakdown, be it in a work or in a race.

But if he had lived every day of his life back at the track just as happy as a pig in slop, would Doug O'Neill, STD Racing and Jason Wood really have done wrong by the horse?


  1. I am sure that Doug O'Neill and the owners of Lava Man think they are doing right by the horse.
    I am also sure that his injury is healed. However, I think that bringing him back at his age after injury is indeed the wrong thing to do.
    I have been told he will not be allowed to drop into the claiming ranks. Well maybe. I have also read that his winnings would be donated to charity and that is a good thing.
    However, the racing industry does not need another breakdown and death of a popular race horse.
    Let the fate of Wandrin Boy (anther veteran who returned over and over again to racing after injury) be a lesson.

  2. I've been wondering this for a few days, but is the argument about what's best for the horse, or what's best for the perception of the industry? Is it possible those are two very different things?

    There's a lot of tooth-gnashing among racing fans about how bad it will make racing look if Lava Man breaks down and dies.

    There was much gnashing of teeth among people inside racing about what would happen if Rachel Alexandra were to break down in the Preakness and die -- "another Eight Belles."

    In the end, racehorses race or there IS no industry.

    Rachel faced the risks, raced against males in the Preakness, Haskell and Whitney, and won all of them, almost certainly cementing a championship. Had she broken down -- possibly in every race, even against her fellow 3-year-old fillies -- the criticism would've been brutal. I guess that just goes with the territory.

    It will be a shame if Lava Man breaks down and dies. But it's a shame every time a $5K maiden-claimer breaks down at Blue Ribbon Downs or Finger Lakes or Assiniboia.

    "Shame" has two meanings. People use it merely to express regret and sadness over an outcome, and it is used to express outrage (or guilt) over something dishonorable or improper.

    That's the dividing point here. A poll at suggests that about seven in 10 people believe it is dishonorable to take the risk now with Lava Man. But if he's fit, I don't see it as any more dishonorable than running an 8-year-old or 10-year-old who has 80 or 100 starts under his belt and keeps soldiering-on, sometimes until he breaks.

    If this is an outcry over running an older horse, there should be outcry over running ALL older horses.

    If it's anger about bringing back an icon after a 12-month layoff, doesn't it border on hypocrisy (or at least selective ethics) not to also complain about bringing back every 7- or 8-year-old claimer after injury-forced 10- or 15-month layoffs?

    And if the indignation among the fans is about "greed," because Lava Man has already earned his connections $5 million, then should we set some arbitrary earnings limit above which -- by rule -- a horse has "earned" his retirement and is no longer eligible to race, because it just looks greedy to try and get more money out of him?

    As a group, racing fans, me included, gripe about people not racing their horses very often anymore, about horses being retired at early ages, about so few horses being allowed to run on long enough to really build a fan base for themselves and for the sport.

    And when a horse does, and he's "retired" due to a dropoff in form and out of caution about his health, but later proves (apparently, supposedly) healthy and fit enough to race again, it's labeled by some (not you of course, Anne) as "a crime" to bring him back.

    Evening Attire was one of my favorites when he was 4 and 5 and 6. He was even more one of my favorites when he won two stakes races at 9 and another at age 10.

    I'm probably as worried on Lava Man's behalf as anybody (except his owners and Doug O'Neill). But I worried when I put my son on an airplane to Japan a few weeks ago, too.

    In the end, life is full of the risks associated with living it. And if the horse lives to race and seems physically capable of competing successfully, I can't fault the connections for giving Lava Man the chance to live life on his terms.

  3. I am not happy about it but I am not the owners or Doug O'Neill and I would never call them crimnals for trying to bring him back. - I also loved to watch Evening Attire, The Tin Man, Better Talk Now and Perfect Drift. They had long productive careers and The Tin Man did come back twice after difficult injuries. The breakdown of Wanderin Boy affected me a lot - He just stood there and waited for help after his final injury and I started to cry.
    TVG didn't cut away soon enough. I would not want that to happen to Lava Man - and it would also be sad if he came back and couldn't compete and the level he once won at.
    You do bring up a good point. If the horse wants to race, then it is probably worth another try if he is fit enough.

  4. I understand the trepidation and I appreciate the passion and the compassion.

    I was ticked about the fatal comeback of Super Frolic. He was retired to stud but "didn't attract a suitable number of mares" and was brought out of retirement.

    I won't use the term "greed," but in that case the decision to race the horse again seems much more like a financial decision and not a case of the horse's condition and attitude sending the message that he'd like to go back to the races.

    It doesn't appear that Super Frolic covered any mares in 2007, the spring that he was supposed to be at stud. So either he attracted zero breeding interest in Kentucky or else just so few mares that Millennium Farms turned them down or directed them to other stallions on the property.

    But while Super Frolic was a worthy breeding animal (he made 42 starts and was a G2 winner by a Preakness winner and from a very prolific blacktype female family) I don't think he was ever likely to be a Kentucky-market standout. Sent to Pennsylvania, New York or even Florida, I believe he'd have had a sustainable book of mares.

    So that was my argument against his comeback at that time. He was retired to stud. I think he was misplaced as a stallion prospect in Kentucky, though Millennium had campaigned him and I'm not surprised they wanted to keep him. And I felt relocating him to a state where his breeding and record would be upper-class instead of second-class would have given him the proper opportunity at a second career; a chance he hadn't been afforded in Kentucky.

    The game's full of second-guessing. Those who own and race horses are second-guessed and those who watch, me included, do the second-guessing. And I aspire to someday be the guy getting second-guessed.

    If I make it there, we'll see if I take it well.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.