Monday, December 28, 2009

Age, layoffs and Lava Man

It was a predictable outcome -- not the loss by Lava Man in his return to racing a year and a half after we last saw him compete, but the outcry among fans when the horse finished last.

The richest ex-claimer in history -- and one of my favorite horses of all-time -- Lava Man set the pace Sunday in the San Gabriel H.-G2 at Santa Anita, but faded in the stretch and finished last of seven. And fans everywhere from to Facebook are calling for the Slew City Slew gelding to be returned to retirement.

To be sure, it was disappointing to see the former Grade 1 champion overtaken in the stretch of the 9-furlong turf event. Among the downcast were trainer Doug O'Neill and co-owner Jason Wood (along with STD Racing), who indeed are reconsidering whether to keep racing the gelding (soon to be age 9) after groundbreaking stem cell therapy seemed to rejuvenate his ankles.

But let's face facts: The San Gabriel was no small test.

Lava Man had not competed since July 20, 2008, at Del Mar. Simply from a handicapping standpoint, if ever there was a horse who "needed the race," it was Lava Man on Sunday in the San Gabriel.

The race wasn't won by some donkey; it went to Proudinsky, defending champion of the Grade 2 event, who nipped post-time favorite Loup Breton (3/2) by a neck on the wire. And Lava Man was no well-beaten favorite; he went off as the fourth choice of seven (at around 7/1) and despite running out of gas in the closing stages of his first race in more than 17 months, he still finished only some six lengths in arrears.

Wood wonders whether the 9 furlongs might have been too ambitious, and I would say that it was. But both he and O'Neill believe the horse was training so well that he could handle the race. The Blood-Horse reports that Lava Man looked "superb" and "on the muscle" for his comeback. And rider Tyler Baze didn't sound disappointed in the old man's effort at all.

"He just got a little tired," Baze told HRTV. "He feels like a different horse to me, like a new horse. I expect him to run big next time."

That the horse returned with blood on his hind legs -- likely from striking the gate at the start, O'Neill speculates -- indeed fuels fears that something catastrophic could happen to him. And that would be a sad event; a tough way to go out for such a gritty competitor. Yet that's the same risk facing every racehorse, every day, from 2-year-olds to the ancient warriors.

And speaking of which -- ancient warriors, that is -- did anybody who is decrying Lava Man's comeback pay any attention to Calder Race Course on Saturday? There, running on grass in the 12-furlong W.L. McKnight H.-G2, Cloudy's Knight scored a 1 1/4-length victory, capping a 9-year-old season in which he won four of five starts, earned $426,759 and suffered his only defeat by a desperate nose to Man of Iron in the Breeders' Cup Marathon.

"He's taken us from race to race," said trainer Jonathan Sheppard of his charge, Cloudy's Knight. "That will be it for him for awhile as we've already decided to skip Gulfstream.

"You can't dance all the dances, although he wasn't even blowing when he came back today. We hope to bring him back by the spring or summer."

Bring him back at age 10, that is.

Turning 9 on Friday and with a 17-month layoff from which to recover, Lava Man, too, can't be expected to "dance all the dances." And sometimes it's going to be obvious that he's lost a step.

But it isn't even giving the old fella a chance to call for retirement because he didn't hit the board in his first race in forever.

I suspect Lava Man will remain in training, at least so O'Neill, Wood and the other owners can evaluate whether he can improve from his effort in the San Gabriel.

I think there's every reason to believe that he can. And if all Lava Man manages at age 9 is to be "another Cloudy's Knight," I'd say that would be plenty.


  1. Agree with you Glen, let not panic, Naughty New Yorker, a NY Bred 7 year old gelding, placed 2nd in his 51st start on Sunday at the Big A after a couple of poor showings this fall when he looked like he was done. We have to remember, that these horses are bred to run.

  2. Cloudy's Knight -- probably the top pure stayer (specialist at 1 1/2 miles and beyond) in North America right now. Cheers!

  3. Hopefully they bring Lava Man back. You are probably right that this race was asking too much of him after the long lay off.


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