ARCADIA, Calif. -- The California Cup program needed more horses; Lava Man needed lesser competition. Both get their wish Saturday at Santa Anita.
The Oak Tree Racing Association hosts the 11-race, $1.3 million Cal Cup, bolstered by large fields and a genuine star. Lava Man's current form may be sketchy, yet the popular gelding will be heavily favored to end a two-race losing streak in the centerpiece race, the $250,000 Classic.
The California Cup also seeks rejuvenation. The all-Cal-bred program, now in its 18th year, remains an annual fall highlight. However, its popularity has waned - the $14.7 million handle on the 2006 event marked the fifth straight year that Cal Cup wagering has declined. Oak Tree vice president Sherwood Chillingworth expects the trend to reverse Saturday.
"What we need are fuller fields," Chillingworth said. "They were kind of skinny last year."
Mission accomplished - 110 horses entered the 2007 Cal Cup races, 23 more than ran last year. And while the biggest draw Saturday is a familiar seven-time Grade 1 winner, as many bettors will be wagering against Lava Man as those who consider him a virtual cinch.
Lava Man has won 17 races and $5.2 million from 42 starts, most since being claimed in 2004 for $50,000 by Steve and Dave Kenly and Jason Wood. Trainer Doug O'Neill has masterminded the 6-year-old gelding's career, and believes Lava Man can rebound after two sixth-place finishes as the favorite: last in the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile, a one-mile grass race at Santa Anita Oct. 7, and in midpack on the slow Polytrack at Del Mar in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic on Aug. 19.
"Getting him back to a mile and an eighth on a real firm surface should [help]," O'Neill said. "He continues to show in the morning that he's every bit as energetic. We should see a big effort Saturday. If not, then he might need a little breather."
Skeptical bettors and rival horsemen will bank that Lava Man is over the top. The 124-pound topweight and class of the field, Lava Man is the 7-5 track favorite over 10 rivals. They include Bold Chieftan, a 6-for-12 stakes winner; Cheroot, runner-up in the 2006 Cal Cup Classic; improving 3-year-old Celtic Dreamin; and potential upsetter Valiant Effort.
The Cal Cup Classic is race 10 on an 11-race card, and is the penultimate leg in the pick six (races 6-11) with a guaranteed pool of $1 million. The card begins with two starter-allowance races, followed by eight stakes.
Runforthemoneybaby, third in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf Stakes, is the favorite in race 3, the $125,000 Juvenile Fillies at 1 1/16 miles.
Imagine drops from a Grade 1 and is the likely winner in race 4, the $100,000 Distance Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles on turf.
Bai and Bai will try to upset Somethinaboutlaura in race 5, the $150,000 Matron at 1 1/16 miles.
Grade 1 winner Dancing Edie runs in race 6, the $150,000 Distaff at 6 1/2 furlongs on turf.
Stakes winner My Reedemer must overcome post 14 in race 7, the $125,000 Juvenile at 1 1/16 miles.
Grade 1 winner Bilo returns in race 8, the $150,000 Sprint at six furlongs,
And in race 9, Epic Power will try to win the $150,000 Mile on turf for the second year.
Ending the pick six in race 11, after the Classic, second-time starter Apoplectic leads a field of 14 older maidens racing 6 1/2 furlongs on turf.
First post Saturday is early, 12 noon Pacific, and the crowd will just be settling in when Flip the Penny seeks his fifth straight win in race 1. While Flip the Penny enters the starter allowance (horses that started for $32,000) as the most rapidly improving horse on the card, Lava Man will enter the Classic as the horse with the most questions.
After he surrendered at the quarter pole last out in the Oak Tree Mile on turf, it was clear that Lava Man needed easier company, a different strategy, a shift in his training regimen, or all three. O'Neill's assistant Leandro Mora suggested a shift to daily gallops - working on the Hollywood Park training track instead of the main track.
"[Horses] can get sour going to one place all the time, and when you're not getting what you want, you switch to make your horse happier," Mora said. Lava Man began the training-track gallops a week and a half ago. "He has done way better - way better," Mora emphasized.
O'Neill agrees that the change in routine "seemed to liven him up a little bit."
O'Neill also believes a revised strategy Saturday will benefit the gelding. In his most recent start, Lava Man was rated behind the speed and failed to rally.
"He's a free-running horse; we won't be trying to save, save, save and then explode," O'Neill said. "That has never worked for him. He can take it to you early, that's always been his strength, and we'll go back to that this time."
Corey Nakatani, Lava Man's rider in his last 15 starts, is back aboard on Saturday.
If the favorite misfires, anything goes. Bold Chieftan returns to the main track after a fourth-place turf effort behind Cal Cup Mile starter Now Victory. From post 11, Bold Chieftan and jockey Russell Baze must use his speed.
A longshot worth consideration is Valiant Effort. His 1:09.30 six-furlong fraction last time was the fastest of the meet in 1 1/16-mile race on the main track, and though he only earned a 91 Beyer Figure winning by 7 1/2 lengths, he enters on an upward pattern for trainer Cliff Sise and jockey Alex Solis.
The last time Valiant Effort faced Lava Man, in June at Hollywood, he was used as a sacrificial pacesetter for After Market. Valiant Effort's intentions Saturday are to try to spring an upset.
"I ran against Lava Man once, on a suicide pace," Sise said. "This time, I'm not going to be the rabbit."