Sometimes no matter how good you are, winning a year-end award is out of your control. In this case, Lava Man, the best horse on the west coast, loses one race out of eight, all Stakes races, and isn’t even a finalist for Horse of the Year.The story of Seabiscuit is a glorious tale, one where a small overworked and unwanted west coast racehorse ascends to national prominence, taking on all competitors and winning. Very subtly, a similar story has been unfolding for the past two years. Lava Man, a six year old gelding out of California has become the new loveable underdog, a blue collar nobody that has risen to the height of the racing world. Unbelievably, however, he remains in most people’s eyes, a suspect racehorse of dubious qualifications.
In his first full year of racing, Lava Man competed twelve times with three wins and only four finishes in the money. While this is nowhere near Seabiscuit’s thirty-five starts at age two, it is, by today’s standards, a full schedule. His record indicated he was nothing more than an allowance who could not handle stakes races, thus he was understandably dismissed and ultimately claimed for $50,000 dollars.
Lava Man has since matured with age, winning a jaw-dropping eleven of his last fifteen starts. In 2006 he won seven of eight races, both on grass and dirt, for a total of $2.77 million dollars, the third highest total in North America, and the first if one does not count purse-padded Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup events. Such achievements earned Lava Man a tie for last place in Eclipse Award voting for 2006 Horse of the Year!
In an even more unbelievable scenario, Lava Man was victorious in the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic, Southern California’s Big Three Grade I handicaps, the first time this feat has been accomplished. No other horse in history can make such a claim. In total, he won four Grade I stakes, including the Whitingham Classic over noted turf runner King’s Drama,one Grade II and two more ungraded events. The only race he lost last year was the Breeder’s Cup Classic, finishing a well beaten 7th by eventual Eclipse winner Invasor.
The obvious criticism against Lava Man is that he does not travel well, a fact proven in the 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup and this year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. In the Jockey Gold Cup, Lava Man shipped across country, then ultimately went rank when Pletcher-placed rabbit Bishop Court Hill baited him (and ironically Flower Alley), into burning out early, never mind the fact he was vanned off his previous start, the Pacific Classic. While this particular race might be understandable, he is no doubt a Los Angeles horse. He has shipped across country twice and lost both times, while spending most of his time between Hollywood and Santa Anita Park. His domination on the west coast is all too easily dismissed thanks to a prevalent east coast bias.
Invasor no doubt had a phenomenal year and is simply a great looking horse, but he races only four times in North America this year. Granted these races were all Grade I, but a total of four races leaves something to be desired. Taking absolutely nothing away from Bernadini and his Preakness win, but his Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup victories were against, with the exception of Bluegrass Cat, poor competition. Barbaro was a Florida-raced horse who will remain a question mark as to how great he might have been. Invasor and Bernadini both shipped only from Maryland to New York during the regular racing year, and neither has ever had the pleasure of shipping across country.
All these horses are worthy of praise and there is no denying that all had tremendous years. However, too much significance is being placed on the once-a-year Breeder’s Cup Classic because the winner of this year’s race ran only four times. The Classic has a loaded field of fourteen where anything can happen, and any horse can get bumped, squeezed boxed in or post-positioned out of contention. Had another horse, say, Premium Tap, won the Classic, would he be contending for the Eclipse? Invasor? Bernadini? Barbaro? A very interesting question.
How not to win an Eclipse Award? Simple… Win any and all races you enter, and even race a full busy schedule at all different surfaces and lengths. As long as you come from the west coast and don’t win the Classic, you will largely be ignored. Then you can go from being on the Classic’s promotional poster, to not even being a finalist for Horse of the Year.