Lava Man versus a goliath

Updated: October 10, 2006, 6:12 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Doug O'Neill has looked at the speed figure sheets and studied the opposition and even he isn't sure that Lava Man can beat Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic. It seems that Lava Man comes up a bit slow on the sheets compared to Bernardini. Then again, Bernardini can make any horse on the planet look that way. Perhaps, then, Lava Man has to hope for miracle. In that case, he might just be fine.

"[Bernardini's] got the pedigree and he's got the connections and it's going to take the race of our horse's life to be competitive."
-- Lava Man's trainer, Doug O'Neill
At this point, everything Lava Man has accomplished is a miracle or, at the very least, some sort of fairytale. Would beating Bernardini be any less incredible than a horse rising from a $12,500 maiden claimer at the San Joaquin Fair to become a five-time Grade I winner who has bankrolled more than $3.8 million and is a serious Horse-of-the-Year candidate? Not at all. Is there another miracle in the offing? Why not?

The story begins on a Thursday afternoon in June of 2003 in a four-and-a-half furlong race at a Northern California fair. The horse to beat was O'Greedy, who was last seen running in $3,500 claimers at Emerald Downs. Sent off at 35-1, Lava Man finished fourth and his destiny seemed assured. He would never amount to anything.

Actually, he kept getting better. He concluded his 2-year-old season with a win in a maiden special weight race at Golden Gate Fields and was soon running in allowance races and high-priced claimers. But there was nothing about his record at the time to suggest that he would ever turn into a special horse.

Then co-owner and trainer Lonnie Arterburn dropped Lava Man into a $50,000 claimer at Del Mar in 2004 and O'Neill figured he could add a decent claimer to his barn. No more. No less. He never could have imagined that he just made one of the great claims in racing history.

"We were hoping that he would win the day we took him and then we could bump him up a level and he'd win there and maybe then we'd lose him for more than we claimed him for," O'Neill said. "That's part of the claiming game. With 99 percent of the claimers, you want to keep them moving."

It was soon apparent that Lava Man was not the type of horse that O'Neill would ever want to move out. The gelded son of Slew City Slew finished second the day he was claimed by O'Neill on behalf of STD Racing Stable, but he won a small stakes at Fairplex in his next start. He finished his 3-year-old year with a second place finish in the Grade I Malibu at Santa Anita.

He was better still in 2005, the year in which he won his first Grade I race, the Hollywood Gold Cup. He was good last year. This year, he has been amazing.

Lava Man is 7-for-7 in 2006 and became the first horse in history to win the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic in the same year. It's not a stretch to call him a latter day John Henry or Seabiscuit, two former claimers who came out of nowhere to achieve greatness.

In large part, though, he hasn't gotten the acclaim he deserves. Part of that is because the year has belonged to, first, Barbaro and, then, Bernardini. There's also a matter of him flopping every time he leaves California. He's 0-for-3 outside the Golden State and he lost those races by a combined 77 lengths. And maybe it has something to do with people refusing to believe that a San Joaquin Fair bust can't possibly be this good.

"There are tons of doubters for some reason," O'Neill said. "Every race, there are a lot of doubts. It's probably because of his beginnings. People think he's going to fall right back into that."

Now, Lava Man has to leave the friendly confines of California, travel to Churchill Downs and take on a monster in Bernardini in the Classic. Good luck, right?

"From my standpoint, Bernardini is a freak," O'Neill said. "He's so amazingly gifted.He's c We look at numbers. On sheer numbers, we're not fast enough. We really need to step it up. On both the Ragozin and Thoro-Graph sheets, Bernardini is way superior."

It's Lava Man we are talking about. Anything is possible.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

ALSO SEE