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Lava Man

Lava Man
200 px
Lava Man at NexStar Farm in 2008.
Sire Slew City Slew
Dam L'il Ms. Leonard
Grandsire Seattle Slew
Damsire Nostalgia's Star
Gender Gelding
Foaled 2001
Country USA
Color Dark Bay
Breeder Lonnie Arterburn, Eve Kuhlmann, Kim Kuhlmann
Owner STD Racing Stable/Jason Wood
Trainer Lonnie Arterburn
Doug O'Neill
Record 47:17-8-5
Earnings $5,268,706
Lava Man is a thoroughbred racehorse out of L'il Ms. Leonard by Slew City Slew. He was born around 2001 in USA, and was bred by Lonnie Arterburn, Eve Kuhlmann, Kim Kuhlmann.
Major wins
Californian Stakes (2005)
Hollywood Gold Cup (2005, 2006, 2007)
Sunshine Millions Classic (2006)
Santa Anita Handicap (2006, 2007)
Khaled Stakes (2006)
Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap (2006)
Pacific Classic Stakes (2006)
Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (2006)
Sunshine Millions Turf (2007)
California Bred Champion Older Horse
(2005, 2006)
California Horse of the Year (2005, 2006)
California Bred Champion Turf Horse (2006)
California Bred Champion Older Horse (2007)
Horse (Equus ferus caballus)
Last updated on August 19, 2007

Lava Man (foaled on March 20, 2001) is a dark bay thoroughbred gelding by Slew City Slew (Seattle Slew) out of L'il Ms. Leonard (Nostalgia's Star). He who rose from the lowest levels of race horse 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 was 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."

Eve Kuhlmann, who competes in triathlons, named the horse Lava Man for a triathlon on the Big Island in Hawaii.


Just a Claimer

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.

Moving Up

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 if his connections had chosen to make him eligible for being claimed. Then he took the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in June for his first graded stakes victory. In his next race, the $750,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in July 2005, 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 Lvaa Man 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.

From Claiming to Reigning

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 favorite High Limit, 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Champion Wilko. He scored a 3/4 length victory over the overlooked, high-quality horse Magnum, who was carrying 7 fewer pounds than Lava Man. Lava Man earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 113 for his effort. Because of his turf ability and pedigree, O'Neill next entered him 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 him on the turf, O'Neill followed up the Khaled victory by entering the horse 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. This win 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 preferred. 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. He also had the distinction of winning the Gold Cup by the biggest and smallest margins in race history.

Lava Man became the first horse since Triple Crown Winner Affirmed in 1979 to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup in 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 Native Diver.

After Lava Man's 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."

Lava Man (with jockey Corey Nakatani) after crossing the finish line to take 1st place in the 2006 Goodwood Breeder's Cup Handicap.

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 seemed 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 was 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 in front of 43,024 fans. Lava Man earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 for this victory. He became the only horse to win two Santa Anita Handicaps and two Hollywood Gold Cups. Three weeks after this win, he 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 was his characteristic when traveling away from California, Lava Man finished last of 16 horses after he had the lead 3 furlongs from the finish line. In April 2007, at the close of the Santa Anita Park season, he was unanimously named "Horse of the Meet."

Lava Man (with jockey Corey Nakatani) after dueling with A.P. Xcellent to win the 2007 Hollywood Gold Cup.

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, 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.

Hard Times

On July 23rd, 2007, Lava Man's long-time groom, Noe Garcia, suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident just outside of the Del Mar Racetrack, where Lava Man was stabled in preparation for the Pacific Classic Stakes. The accident left Garcia without his left arm. Trainer O'Neill said, "He's lucky to be alive and he's got a lot to live for. He's got a job with this stable forever."

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. He 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 and 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.”

Lava Man at NexStar farm in Temecula, CA.

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, in mid stretch he again ran out of steam and placed 6th. These defeats came 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 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.

Return to the Track and Retirement I and Retirement II

Lava Man was again examined at the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center before returning to Hollywood Park on January 26, 2008. Noe Garcia, Lava Man's long time groom, also returned to the track to resume his duties with the champion. Garcia had taken a 6 month break to recuperate from the car accident in which he almost lost his life to a drunk driver. O'Neill ran Lava Man at the April 27, 2008, Khaled Stakes, where he finished a non-threatening third, after previously winning the race in track record time in 2006. Lava Man went on to run competitively in the $300,000 Charles Whittingham Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 7, 2008, placing third, a mere neck behind the winner. O'Neill deemed the three week timetable between the Whittingham and the Hollywood Gold Cup to be too short of a rest for Lava Man to make an attempt to win the race for the fourth consecutive. The horse then started in the Grade I Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar Racetrack on July 20, 2008, finishing a well beaten sixth. Subsequent x-rays, performed at the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center, revealed that the gelding's front ankles showed marked changes from x-rays taken earlier in the year. Based on the veterinarian's assessment and the gelding's performance in the Eddie Read, Lava Man was retired on Wed. July 30th, 2008, after having made 46 starts in his career.

On September 23, 2009, after Lava Man ran an official 3 furlong workout in 36 seconds flat at Hollywood Park (tied for the fastest time of the 24 horses that ran at that distance), O'Neill announced that the gelding was back in training and preparing for a comeback only if he could compete at a Grade 1 level. Lava Man's first and only comeback start was in the San Gabriel Handicap (Gr. IIT) at Santa Anita Park on December 27, 2010, where he finished last. It was announced on January 5, 2010, that Lava Man was retired for good. In May 2010, O'Neill said that the horse was his stable pony and that he had become accustomed to his new role.


Lava Man won 7 Grade 1 races, ranking him as the all-time leader among California-breds. His earnings of nearly $5.2 million place him third on the list of leading California-bred earners, right behind Best Pal ($5,668,245) and Tiznow ($6,427,830). He is the only horse to win the signature race at each of Southern California's major thoroughbred racetracks in one year, and he equalled Native Diver's previously deemed unmatchable record of winning three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups. Lava Man was the first horse in a generation to win a Grade 1 race on dirt and turf in the same year, and he is the only horse to win a North American Grade 1 race on dirt, turf, and an artificial racing surface. He is the all-time leading earner among claimers and is arguably the greatest claim in racing history.

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.



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