Lava Man has a calming effect around the track

May 16, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

He toils in relative obscurity now, a beer-and-a-shot horse in the champagne world of big-time racing.

This week he's in Barn D, Stall 19 at Pimlico Race Course, right next door to Kentucky Derby winnerI'll Have Another, but light years from the spotlight he once enjoyed.

This is the great Lava Man, now the stable pony that will escort I'll Have Another to the Preakness starting gate Saturday for trainer Doug O'Neill.

But what a back-story this pony has. It's like something out of a Hollywood movie, really.

It begins when Lava Man was claimed for $50,000 at Del Mar eight years ago by Steve Kenly, co-owner of STD Racing Stable.

"I basically told him he was nuts," O'Neill admits cheerfully.

He thought the price was too high. And that the horse was coming from a lesser circuit. And didn't have the classic size you look for in a champion.

Which made O'Neill 0-for-3 in the scouting department.

All Lava Man did from there was go on to notch seven Grade 1 wins and earn nearly $5.2 million before retiring in January 2010. Talk about your return on investment. That makes Lava Man the greatest earner among claimers in racing history.

Now the 11-year-old gelding is in his second career: calming skittish thoroughbreds and teaching them not to be knuckleheads around the track and barn.

"Can you imagine that?" O'Neill said Tuesday with a chuckle. "It's like you show up with the boys at the country club on a public course and you have Arnold Palmer as your caddy."

Or you climb into the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard as your cut-man.

Or you race the Daytona 500 with Richard Petty as your crew chief.

The analogies could go on and on.

Seeing Lava Man now on a rainy Tuesday at Pimlico, head bobbing happily after walking the shedrow with I'll Have Another, it's easy to forget what a superstar he was.

He won three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups in his six seasons of racing. And he's the only horse to win a North American Grade 1 race on dirt, turf and synthetic surface.

"To have a horse be that successful and end up being just a brilliant pony is unbelievable," O'Neill said.

It took a little work to get the son of Slew City Slew used to his new role, though. Lava Man was high-strung. High-maintenance, too.

"He can be a little cranky," O'Neill said.

Not a horsey head-case, a but a definite challenge for veteran stable foreman Sabas Rivera, whom Team O'Neill fondly refers to as the Horse Whisperer.

"He probably spent two hours a day with (Lava Man) for months," O'Neill said, "with the western saddle and a different bridle and just a lot of standing exercises."

With time, Lava Man learned to calm down and harness his energy toward mentoring other horses.

"Horses talk in their own way," O'Neill said. "And his toughness and confidence definitely feeds to (the other horses.) You'll see the first time he chaperones them, they'll try to bite him and lean on him. And he'll just immediately correct them like: 'You don't do that.' And they're like: 'Holy crap, who's this guy?'"

In time, even though he was far from the limelight, Lava Man seemed to develop a whole new swagger.

Call it the Homer Simpson Syndrome.

"He's like the dad of the barn," said assistant trainer Jack Sisterson. "He kind of teaches them the tricks of the trade. 'Do this, do that.' They know he's the boss. He ponies them out to the track. They know to behave when Lava Man gets there."

Team O'Neill quickly realized they had something special in their new pony, who seemed just as happy keeping other horses in line as he was as a post-claiming legend.

"After he's finished work – we call it karaoke time – he'll start moving his lips and nodding his head," Sisterson said. "So that's him like doing a little sing-song.

" . . . When he gets done at the track, we'll take his tack off and he'll walk down the shedrow by himself without anyone leading him. He'll go straight to the feed bucket, flip the lid open and help himself. We call it the Lava Man Buffet."

Two days from now, when he escorts I'll have Another onto the Pimlico track for the big race and the crowd of 100,000-plus roars in anticipation, lava man will take on his most important role: calming influence.

The horse that's been there, done that.

"We always joke that it would be interesting to see right before we break off into the gate what he tells I'll Have Another," Sisterson said.

My guess?

Something along the lines of: "Just win, baby."

Hearing this, Sisterson nodded.

"He's been telling him the right things so far," Sisterson said. "So I'm sure it'll continue Saturday."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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