Lava Man (foaled on March 20, 2001) is a dark bay gelded thoroughbred race horse by Slew City Slew (Seattle Slew) out of L'il Ms. Leonard (Nostalgia's Star) who rose from the lowest levels of claiming races to become regarded by many racing fans and members of the racing media as a legend in his own time. Born at Popular Meadows Ranch near Sanger, California, he is now trained by Doug O'Neill, who bought him as a claimer for the STD Racing Stable (the Kenly family) and their partner, Jason Wood. He was bred by Lonnie Arterburn, Eve Kuhlmann, and Kim Kuhlmann in California. A jockey who regularly rides Lava Man, Corey Nakatani, has said of him, "This horse has gears, so many gears. What a horse. He's just about unbelievable."
Lava Man first raced as a 2-year-old in a $12,500 maiden claiming race at the San Joaquin County Fair in June 2003, finishing fourth and earning a paltry Beyer Speed Figure of 27. The Fair Circuit is the lowest level of thoroughbred competition in California thoroughbred racing. His then breeder/trainer, former jockey Lonnie Arterburn (who had claimed Lava Man's dam, L'il Ms. Leonard), said he was a big, long-striding horse that never got tired. "But he was so laid back he could be a pony. He didn't show anything in the mornings. I took him out to Stockton, California to get him a race, make him eligible for starter allowances and not get him claimed away." In the words of Daily Racing Form columnist Dick Jerardi, "Lava Man did not start his career on the other side of the tracks. He started his career in a place [Stockton] where there are no tracks." He lost his next two races. Then Arterburn tried him on the grass. The result was dramatic. He began to show what he was made of, winning or placing in allowance races at Golden Gate Fields. And then Artherburn entered him into a $62,500 claiming race at Del Mar Racetrack because, as he said, "We had no other place to run him so we took him south. It was the usual Northern California problem." He came in a poor sixth, so in his next race, Arterburn dropped him down a notch. It was then he was claimed by Doug O'Neill, looking for a useful California-bred. It was a blow for Arterburn, but at least he retains some of his horse. California-breds winning open races in the state generate breeders' rewards worth approximately 15 percent of the purse.
In August 2004, STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood got lucky at Del Mar Racetrack when they urged their trainer, O'Neill to claim Lava Man for $50,000. At the age of three, Lava Man won the Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex and came in second behind Rock Hard Ten in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes. Doing so well against the very good Rock Hard Ten in a Grade 1 made O'Neill dream of doing more.
In 2005, Lava Man lost his first three starts. O'Neill decided to make an equipment change and fitted Lava Man with blinkers. He responded by winning a May optional claiming race where he could have been purchased for $100,000. Then he took the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in June for his first graded stakes victory. In his next race, in July 2005, the $750,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, Lava Man turned in his breakthrough performance, winning by a stakes record margin of victory of over 8 lengths and earning his career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 120 while carrying the highweight in the race. In August, he was a game third in the Pacific Classic Stakes, coming out of race so exhausted he had to be vanned off. "He gave us such a scare," said O'Neill, "We thought he broke down. You wanted to hug the horse even more. He gave everything he had. People don't do that and horses don't do that."
But then he ran badly in his next two races. He was sent east for the Jockey Club Gold Cup but only managed seventh. In late November, he went to Japan for the Japan Cup Dirt. There, he finished eleventh, and was found to have an abscess in his left front foot. He would not race again for nearly a year.
Lava Man came back from his foot injury in 2006 and blossomed into a superstar. His first 2006 race, the $1,000,000 Sunshine Millions Classic restricted to California- and Florida-bred horses was an easy score, earning Lava Man a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 99. Critics doubted that, once matched against all-comers, he could be competitive. In his next race, the $1,000,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, Lava Man faced the favorite, High Limit, 2005 Kentucky Derby Winner, Giacomo, and the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Champion, Wilko, and he scored a 3/4 length victory over the overlooked, high-quality horse, Magnum, who was carrying 7 pounds less than Lava Man. Lava Man earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113 for his effort. Because of Lava Man's turf ability and pedigree, O'Neill, next, entered Lava Man in the restricted Khaled Stakes at Hollywood Park Racetrack. Lava Man won easily and set a new track record for 1 1/8 miles while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106. Keeping Lava Man on the turf, O'Neill followed up the Khaled victory by entering Lava Man in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (formerly Turf Invitational Handicap) at Hollywood Park Racetrack. Lava Man rolled to a comfortable victory in the 1 1/4 mile Whittingham earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. Lava Man's win in the Whittingham made him the first horse since Eclipse Award winner Vanlandingham in 1985 to win a Grade 1 Turf and Dirt race in the same year.
Next up for Lava Man was an attempt to repeat in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Only the legendary California-bred and Hall of Famer Native Diver had ever repeated in the Gold Cup in 1965-66-67. Lava Man stumbled badly at the start of the race and had to ride more off the pace than he generally wishes. Nevertheless he took the lead in mid-stretch and held off by a short nose the gallant run of longshot Ace Blue, who was carrying 10 pounds less than Lava Man, to achieve his Gold Cup repeat. Lava Man earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure for his win. Lava Man has also earned the remarkable distinction of winning the Gold Cup by the largest and shortest margins.
Lava Man became the first horse since Triple Crown Winner Affirmed in 1979 to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cupin the same year. He, also, became the first horse to win the Whittingham and the Gold Cup in the same year since the great Exceller in 1978. Finally, he was named "Horse of the Meet" for the second consecutive year at Hollywood Park Racetrack - the first horse to repeat the coveted title since the great Native Diver.
After his Gold Cup win, Daily Racing Form columnist Dick Jerardi wrote, "[N]early 27 months after his first visit to Hollywood Park Racetrack[finishing last at 57-1 in the Snow Chief Stakes], Lava Man was 3-5 in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. This is about as close to Seabiscuit as this sport has seen since Seabiscuit."
In August 2006, Lava Man prevailed in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes over a strong field of equal-weighted thoroughbreds including Giacomo, Perfect Drift, Good Reward, Super Frolic, and Magnum, while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 109. By virtue of this win, he became the first horse ever to take the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes in the same calendar year. In September, he was named "Horse of the Meet" for the 2006 Del Mar racing season. In October 2006, Lava Man prevailed in the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at the Oak Tree Racing Association's Santa Anita Park meet while carrying 126 lbs., 10 more lbs. than runner-up Brother Derek, and he earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure. He was later named the Oak Tree Racing Association's "Horse of the Meet."
He was touted by many racing observers as a possible 2006 Horse of the Year candidate if he could beat favored Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on November 4, 2006. However, as seems to be his nature when racing away from California, he did not show up with his best race and was never a factor in the Classic, finishing seventh, well behind Bernardini (placing by a length) and the winner from Argentina by way of Uruguay—Invasor. It's also been stated by Blood-Horse magazine that Lava Man bled in the race. Despite his Breeders' Cup Classic loss, Lava Man's likeness was inserted into a snowglobe given to paid admissions at Hollywood Park Racetrack in December 2006.
In January 2007, Lava Man's first start of the year was the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita Park. Racing wide most of the way, he came home easily, winning by two lengths, and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. John Mucciolo of Brisnet.com wrote: "Lava Man continues to add to his legacy as one of the best California-bred runners we've witnessed in the past 20 years, and the ovation he received from the fans turning for home signifies just how loved this animal really is." The crowd at Santa Anita Park for the Sunshine Millions exceeded 36,000 which represented a new, record high attendance for the event. Most attribute the attendance record to fans who wished to see Lava Man.
In March 2007, Lava Man repeated his 2006 victory in the $1,000,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap becoming only the third horse to do so (John Henry, Milwaukee Brew), beating the likes of Molengao, Boboman, and 2007 Sunshine Millions Classic winner McCann's Mojave while being cheered by most of the 43,024 racing fans in attendance. Lava Man earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 for this victory. Lava Man is now the only horse to have won two Santa Anita Handicaps and two Hollywood Gold Cups. Three weeks after this win, Lava Man was shipped to Dubai to compete in the $5,000,000 Dubai Duty Free Stakes over approximately 1 1/8 miles on the turf. As is his characteristic when traveling away from California, Lava Man finished last of 16 horses after he actually had the lead 3 furlongs from the finish line. In April 2007, at the close of the Santa Anita Park season, Lava Man was unanimously named "Horse of the Meet."
In June 2007, Lava Man returned to the California race circuit with a second place finish in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap. At the time of this loss, it was an open question as to whether the pace of the race, the after-effects of Dubai, age, or a better challenger in After Market produced the loss. Lava Man quelled all doubts about his performance in the Whittingham by winning his third consecutive Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup victory over A.P. Xcellent, Big Booster, and the biggest threat to Lava Man, Molengao, on June 30, 2007. John Mucciolo of Brisnet.com wrote: "STD Racing and Wood's Lava Man added to his living-legend status with a courageous nose win in this historic event for conditioner Doug O'Neill. The Cal-bred six-year-old looked beaten in the final furlong but somehow found just enough to eke out the win under Corey Nakatani. The incredible gelding went 1 1/4 miles in 2:03 1/5." John Shirreffs, A.P. Xcellent's trainer, stated after the race, "I was really proud of him [A.P. Xcellent]. He showed his character and there is a reason Lava Man is Lava Man." Lava Man's third consecutive Gold Cup matched Native Diver's three-peat of 1965-1967, earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105, and set a new course record for 1 1/4 miles on the new Hollywood cushion track surface. With his win on cushion track, Lava Man became the first horse to win Grade 1 races on three different surfaces: conventional dirt, turf, and cushion track.
After his Gold Cup win, Steve Haskin of the Blood-Horse contemplated Lava Man's failure to win outside of the state of California and called upon his owners to make another attempt at the Breeders' Cup. Haskin wrote: "Sure, it could backfire, but it’s not as if Lava Man’s reputation is going to suffer if it did. He’ll still be the king of California. He’ll still be a racing treasure. He’ll still be a legend. In short, he’ll still be Lava Man. And that’s enough in anyone’s lifetime." On July 15, 2007, Lava Man was named "Horse of the Meet" for the Hollywood Park Spring/Summer Meet for the third consecutive year.
On August 19, 2007, Lava Man was sent-off as the 6-5 favorite in the Pacific Classic Stakes but did not take well to Del Mar's new Polytrack and finished a well-beaten sixth. Lava Man was then pointed to the October 7, 2007 Oak Tree Mile Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meet in hopes the shorter distance and firmer turf might benefit him. The gelding placed a disappointing sixth, finishing last, and jockey Corey Nakatani said “There was no energy level there at all. We were sitting in a real good spot right behind the leaders, and then I can normally push the horse outside, but he just had no fight today. I don't know what the deal was.”
After a promising pre-race workout workout on October 28, 2007 Lava Man was sent off as the favorite in the November 3, 2007 California Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. The gelding broke well and assumed his favorite stalking position, however, mid stretch he again ran out of steam and placed 6th. These defeats have come as a hard blow to the horse that reigned as "The King of California" for nearly two years. Veterinarians at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Santa Barbara, CA, were unable to identify anything physically wrong with the gelding, and trainer Doug O'Neill sent Lava Man to NexStar farm in Temecula, CA, for a planned several-month vacation from racing. Despite the lack of a storybook ending to his 2007 racing season, Lava Man was featured in an hour-plus DVD Biography giveaway at Hollywood Park Racetrack in December 2007. The biography was narrated by Jim Forbes of VH1 Behind the Music fame, and was later incorporated into the TVG Racing Network's biography series, Legends.
There had been some talk that Lava Man would retire to the Kentucky Horse Park, an educational theme park for equine enthusiasts. Alternatively there was some discussion that, after giving the gelding 6 months of farm rest, he could serve as a stable pony for Trainer Doug O'Neill's barn, based at Hollywood Park Racetrack. On September 4, 2008, Steve Haskin reported in the Blood-Horse that "Lava Man, one of the great geldings of all time, is scheduled to arrive at Old Friends on Sept. 16, where he will live out the rest of his days." Old Friends is a retirement home in Georgetown, Kentucky where other famous residents include: Affirmed Success, Awad, Bull in the Heather, Creator, Flying Pigeon, Kiri’s Clown, Kudos, Ogygian, Ruhlmann, Special Ring, Sunshine Forever, Thornfield, Wallenda, Will’s Way, and Bonnie’s Poker, the dam of 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Silver Charm.
He was named the 2005 California-Bred Champion Older Horse and Horse of the Year and 2006 Champion Older Horse, Turf Horse, and Horse of the Year by the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association (CTBA), becoming the first repeat California-bred Horse of the Year since Tiznow in 2000 and 2001. In 2007, he was named Champion Older Horse by the CTBA.