Hall of Famer Lava Man is workhorse in trainer O'Neill's stable

The Hall of Fame stable pony has been sorely missed.

On the backstretch at Del Mar, where trainer Doug O’Neill’s horses are housed for the summer meet, there is a dark bay gelding with a white blaze on his forehead who, by way of personality and work rate, cannot be replaced.

Since late July, 17-year-old Lava Man has been recovering from surgery for a twisted intestine at the San Luis Rey Equine Clinic in Bonsall.

“The Ritz-Carlton of equine care,” O’Neill said.

Proving that the memories of great race horses aren’t lost to time, when news spread via social media of Lava Man being ill, O’Neill’s office got hundreds of messages from fans and well-wishers.

Colic often can be deadly for horses, but O’Neill said the ailment was caught early enough that Lava Man is doing well in his recovery and likely will be back at Del Mar by the end of this week.

“It’s been a huge void,” O’Neill said Wednesday. “We all love our horses, but we especially love him because of how long he’s been with us. He’s gone beyond being a pet or a horse. He’s definitely jumped into that family member category. He’s a special horse who’s touched a lot of people.”

Lava Man returning to Del Mar for the premier race of the summer here — Saturday’s TVG Pacific Classic — is perfect timing.

His name has been invoked more than usual in the buildup to the race because the favorite — trainer John Sadler’s Accelerate — is trying to pull off what has only been done twice: sweep the three major handicap division events in California in the same year — the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. Lava Man did it in 2006, and Game On Dude in 2013.

The horse who might have the best chance to beat Accelerate is O’Neill’s Pavel, who won the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in June. He’s the second choice on the morning line.

Lava Man was favored in three straight Pacific Classics, but the only one he won was the middle one, as part of a 2006 campaign that was the greatest in a career that spanned 47 races and 17 wins.

That year he beat a field that included 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, who Lava Man also defeated in the Santa Anita Handicap.

A year earlier in the Pacific Classic, Lava Man had given so much of himself in finishing third that his wobbly legs wouldn’t take him back to the barn. He had to be vanned off the track.

“He was like Rocky in his last round,” O’Neill recalled. “Thank god he was OK.”

Considered perhaps the greatest claim in California racing history — O’Neill and owner Steven Kenly got him for $50,000 and he made $5.2 million — Lava Man was elected into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2015.

“To do what he did, for as long as he did it, I’d be lying if I said I had anything close to that,” said O’Neill, 50, who has saddled more than 14,000 starters and earned more than $123 million. “He’s the most genuine, hard knocking, mentally tough horse I’ve ever trained.”

Lava Man — named for a triathlon in Hawaii — did not have an easy path to stardom. Born in the Fresno County town of Sanger, by Slew City Slew out of L’il Ms. Leonard, he started his racing career as a 2-year-old in June 2003 with a fourth-place finish in a $12,500 maiden claiming contest at the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton.

Then-owner/trainer Lonnie Arterburn raced him nearly a dozen more times, including three claiming races, before entering a $50,000 claimer in August 2004 at Del Mar.

“I never should have run him back down there,” Arterburn told BloodHorse in 2012. “You go down to that claiming pit at Del Mar and you’re asking for trouble. They’re claim crazy down there, and I never should have taken him there.

“I really like the horse. He had a great personality; almost a clown. … He was one kind of character and we tried to protect him the best we could.”

Arterburn considered scratching Lava Man for the claiming race, but ultimately stayed in and badly regretted it. The horse was there for the taking for O’Neill and Kenly.

“He was in great shape when we got him,” O’Neill said. “Among Cal-breds, he was among the biggest and strongest — big-boned.

“He was just a horse with the right timing. Everything came together. At the time it wasn’t very deep in the older male dirt category. We might have got really, really lucky.”

For all of Lava Man’s greatness, he was winless in five starts when O’Neill shipped him outside the state. The biggest disappointment came at the end of the 2006 season, when Lava Man had a shot at being Horse of the Year if he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. But he had a troubled trip and finished seventh, his only loss in eight races that year.

“As unbelievably tough-minded as he is … man, did he hate to ship,” O’Neill said with a laugh. “Even as a stable pony, it would take him a few days to settle into new surroundings. If he was a human, he would have been a homebody.”

Lava Man actually retired twice. Because of sore ankles, it was decided he would leave racing in 2008. But he was restless without his routine, and after Lava Man underwent stem cell therapy, O’Neill trained him for a comeback that lasted one race — a last-place finish in the 2009 San Gabriel Handicap.

It was then that O’Neill thought Lava Man would make a great stable pony. The gelding took to the job right away and immediately got the moniker of “Coach.” He’s credited with schooling I’ll Have Another in 2012 before that colt won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

“He was along for that whole ride,” O’Neill said. “Starting earlier that year, I’ll Have Another could really be a handful. By April, he started behaving and acting like Lava Man. There is no doubt in my mind, with them going back and forth to the track together, that he picked up Lava Man’s toughness. He helped him succeed.”

The pleasure of having Lava Man comes from his personality. There’s a YouTube video of him dancing for carrots, and in another, he’s left to roam free, like a dog, around the barn and heads for a feeding container. He repeatedly flips it open with his nose to eat.

“Horses are brilliant, and he’s just smart beyond the average horse,” O’Neill said. “If you’re not around them much, they’re intimidating and powerful. If you are around them, they can be gentle and kind.

“He’s just a gentle giant who happens to be a very natural leader.”

A stable pony like no other.

Notable

Vexatious, trained by Neil Drysdale and ridden by Rafael Bejarano, won Wednesday’s feature race, the $75,000 added CTT and TOC Stakes. Over 1 3/8 miles over turf, the Calumet Farm-owned Vexatious ($7) beat Irish-bred favorite Queen Blossom, trained by Richard Baltas, by a head.

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutleonard

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