On Wednesday it was announced that one of the nation's favorite horses, Lava Man, would be retired due to ankle problems, which were discovered shortly after he finished sixth in the July 20 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar.
The 7-year-old Slew City Slew gelding was 17-8-5 from 46 starts and earned $5,268,706 in his remarkable career. He is best known for winning a record-tying three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups, a mark he shares only with Native Diver. Lava Man also collected two Santa Anita Handicaps, and seven grade I events overall. He won seven consecutive California stakes in 2006. Third all-time for earnings by a California-bred, he won more than $5 million after being claimed by STD Racing and Jason Wood in August of 2004, shattering the record for most money earned after being claimed.
One day after the retirement was announced I caught up with his trainer Doug O'Neill for a short question and answer session.
JS: Did you kind of suspect that something was wrong after the Eddie Read Handicap?
DO: Not at all. He had been training so good coming into that race, so I knew he was fit. He just didn't have it after six furlongs. We were disappointed with the results, but he came out of the race fine. It was a head-scratcher, which led us to more diagnostic testing. The radiographs showed that his ankles were still sound, but there were noticeable changes going on. That is always a concern, so we knew we had to do right by him and retire him.
JS: What were the emotions of yourself and his owners after you made the decision?
DO: It was mixed. We realized how grateful we were to be involved with a seven-time grade I winner and a true champion. We were also happy to be retiring a sound horse. At the same time there is definitely some sadness. We'll miss not being able to talk about his next race and that buzz that came on race days.
JS: What kind of fan reaction have you gotten so far?
DO: Most fans that have approached me are happy that we did right by him. They will also miss him racing, but seeing him retire soundly is more important.
JS: What are the plans for him in retirement?
DO: The tentative plan is for him to go to the farm for six months. I'm not sure which farm yet, but wherever he goes he'll just chill out for a while. After that, I would like to re-break him and have him as a stable pony around the barn. That would be unbelievable. To have him as a chaperon for these younger horses and pass on what he has learned would be such a great benefit.
JS: A few fans have asked about Lava Man's temperament. How would you describe him?
DO: He definitely had a lot of energy. Not in a hurtful way, but he let you know he was there. He was always the first one up in the morning. The night watch people could write a book on what he did between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. He was very active in his stall and just an overall eager horse. He always wanted to be the first to the track. He also did a lot of posing, kind of like he knew the cameras were there.
JS: He was obviously talented, but what were some of the characteristics that made Lava Man so good?
DO: He thrived on the pressures of big races. He knew when they mattered. From an ability standpoint, he had so much natural speed and stamina. He had a very unique style in that he could run you into the ground early and you couldn't catch him late. The other thing is that he was very sound. It is so important to have that consistency.
JS: Lava Man did not start getting very good until he was 4. Looking back, when did you first notice him turning a corner?
DO: It's been so long ago, but I seem to remember when I put blinkers on him that really helped. Also, I dropped him into that $100,000 claimer (May 14, 2005) and that really seemed to get him going. He gained a lot of confidence after that.
JS: There have been so many great moments and memories. What stands out most for you?
DO: Well, being able to recover so quickly after the Japan race was remarkable. He battled foot problems after he came back here and most horses would have needed months back at the farm to recover. With the help of the shoer and the groom, he came back in 60 or 70 days (to win the Sunshine Millions Classic). That was just unbelievable. Also, the three Gold Cup wins are definitely a highlight. To win just one of those would be special, but three was unreal.
JS: Part of what makes the Lava Man story so special is because he was claimed. What do you recall about that?
DO: That was all Steve (Kenly, co-owner). He deserves the credit there. In fact, I told him he was crazy at the time (laughs). He said I don't care what you say, as long as he looks good in the paddock, I want him. I was allowed to spend $62,500, but we got him for $50,000.
JS: The former owners (Lonnie Arterburn, and Eve and Kim Kuhlmann) could have become bitter over losing a horse that has earned so much, but have always handled the situation so well. That must have made the situation easier for you.
DO: They are such classy people. What also helped is that they bred him, so they gained many breeding awards and other notoriety, and they still had an interest in his success. They were proud every time he won because they broke him and developed him. They deserve much of the credit.
JS: You have had some great horses in your career. Is Lava Man the best, both in terms of desire and talent?
DO: He is certainly the best desire-wise. He is truly a remarkable horse and his consistency is what separates him. Talent-wise, I'm not sure. That's hard. But he is definitely up there. We all feel very fortunate to be a part of him.