Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lava Man's short-lived comeback

So the great Lava Man's un-retirement becomes a re-retirement after only one race.

The 9-year-old gelding who is the only horse ever to win Grade 1 races on all three surfaces (dirt, turf, synthetic) and became the richest ex-claimer in history with $5,268,706 in earnings finished last of seven recently in the San Gabriel H.-G2. I detailed how the race wasn't a "bad" last in an ambitious spot (9 furlongs on turf in graded company), and how a horse coming off a 17-month layoff surely needed a race or two before being expected to show his best.

Lava Man won't get that second race off the layoff. Nor the third, which many handicappers often figure to be the point a comeback cycle when the horse is finally ready to give his best effort.

I won't criticize the connections -- co-owners Steve, Dave and Tracy Kenly and Jason Wood, and trainer Doug O'Neill -- for the basic decision of finally turning the old warrior out for good. Lava Man has earned every penny of his retirement costs and care several times over.

What I do wonder is, having attempted only one race -- and a strenuous one that Lava Man led, in which he finished beaten only six lengths, and from which he reportedly came out of in perfect health -- what was ever the point in bringing him back?

I still refuse to believe, as some critics have suggested, that greed was the reason. I think it really was about giving the horse a chance to do what he was bred to do, and what he for so long obviously loved doing -- running at top speed; racing to win.

So while retiring a 9-year-old can't be considered a bad or rash or indefensible decision, I do question the thought process of the connections from the outset of Lava Man's comeback, particularly their resolve to fully pursue the comeback in the face of what should have been a very predictable outcry among some (many?) fans that the horse shouldn't be racing anymore.

"He came out of the race sound and he is a strong and sturdy horse, but we don't want to tarnish his reputation," Kenly told The Blood-Horse. "We always said we would only run him if he could compete at the highest level, and I don't think that is in the cards anymore. It was his first race in a year and a half and I'm sure he would improve in his next race, but I think he has lost a step. It was disappointing for all of us because he was training unbelievably.

"If it was any other horse he'd be back running in a couple of weeks. To us, this wasn't a risk from a health standpoint even though we took a lot of criticism. There was no fear in racing him. He is 100 percent healthy. But I just don't think he can compete at the level we want him to anymore. In the end it's always been about the horse and not the money."

You know, I have a hard time believing that horses can read their press clippings. I suspect that Lava Man's "reputation" isn't much of a concern to Lava Man -- except, perhaps, as he walks by other stalls around the barn and sees either fear in the eyes of his potential opponents, or a lack thereof.

Worry about "tarnishing" the horse's reputation is entirely a human concern. And certainly it isn't only Lava Man's reputation the connections are considering. Surely nobody, me included, would enjoy being raked over the coals by the fans every time the horse raced in the future, both pre-race and even worse after the finish anytime Lava Man (again) didn't win.

But what, really, about Lava Man's situation has changed in the days since the San Gabriel?

Kenly says the horse is "sound ... strong (and) sturdy." The connections thought he was "training unbelievably" and Kenly is "sure he would improve in his next race." No particular health concerns have cropped up, and, Kenly said, there is "no fear in racing him. He's 100 percent healthy."

Granted, the connections didn't like what they saw at the finish.

"He may have needed a race, but the fact that he was going so slow at the end and was still trying his eyeballs out told us all we needed to know," said Kenly.

(The Blood-Horse reported that Lava Man finished under wraps when jockey Tyler Baze realized the horse would come home out of the money. And Lava Man was finishing "so slow" in a race won by Proudinsky in 1:46.91, which by my count might make it the fifth-fastest San Gabriel Handicap in the race's lengthy history. ... Baze said Lava Man ran "like a new horse.")

To me, the connections' decision to bring back Lava Man at all looks worse (by their own doing) in a one-race comeback than if they had given him two or three races to see what he had left in him. At least give him a crack at restricted company -- Cal-breds and Florida-breds -- for a $500,000 purse in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita on Jan. 30.

Stem-cell treatments on his ankles reportedly improved the horse's condition and soundness considerably. He was training well and by all accounts looked great. Frankly, 9 furlongs among graded turf horses was too much to ask of him in his first race back, but Lava Man didn't embarrass himself and he didn't quit. He should improve his next out and it wouldn't take much improvement to move up onto the board in graded company considering he was beaten only six lengths off a 17-month layoff.

Now Lava Man doesn't get that chance.

Retiring Lava Man is fine with me. And if it wasn't, so what? He ain't my horse.

But shutting down the Lava Man comeback after one race -- a tough one in which he couldn't honestly have been expected to run all that much better than he did -- isn't just frustrating and disappointing for the connections, but for the horse's fans, as well.

And to me it's more questionable from a horse-management standpoint than if they'd just sent him to Old Friends months ago as originally planned.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I was mystified over the race they chose as a comeback; they should have targeted something much easier to let the horse get his confidence back and then go on. As a trainer, I hate to see a horse finish on such a bad lesson.

  2. As long as he'd been on the shelf, he might have qualified for some really restrictive allowance conditions. ... Or even choose a statebred stakes race.

    But I think they were probably concerned with running him "too cheap," even if "cheap" is a hard word to apply to a stakes race.

    The connections had said they wanted Lava Man to run in graded company; if he couldn't do that, then he would no longer race at all. But San Gabriel was a tough spot that Lava Man probably would have been better-served tackling after a prep race or two.


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