Maybe the owners of Lava Man, who banked more than $5 million after they claimed him for $50,000, know what they're doing, but I get the feeling that Lava Man, once a horse, is now a guinea pig. Stem-cell treatment for horses is still in its infancy. Lava Man is almost nine years old. Let them try out this stuff on younger, less high-profile horses.
Trainer Ron McAnally started cranking him up. A letter came one day from the Humane Society or the SPCA, I forget which. "I thought, 'Here we go,'" McAnally said. "But it was only a letter asking for a contribution."
A relieved McAnally continued to send John Henry through his morning paces. This had been a Sam Rubin project from the outset. "He never had a bowed tendon," Rubin said. "We stopped on him too soon."
After a workout one day at Del Mar, John Henry came back with a filling. Jack Robbins, the noted veterinarian and McAnally's long-time friend, was called back from a horse sale at Saratoga. Robbins examined the leg and told Rubin that now was the time to stop on John Henry for good.
"Can you imagine," somebody at the McAnally barn said, "the outcry if something had happened to the horse on the track?"
If something happens to Lava Man, PETA's bags are packed. The racing industry has been giving the overly zealous People for Ethical Treatment of Animals enough ammunition on a regular basis. Racing can only cross its fingers should Lava Man actually race again.
His owners are saying that if their horse is incapable of competing at the highest levels, all bets are off. Perhaps they forget that he hasn't been up to snuff at those levels since the middle of 2007. After winning the Hollywood Gold Cup for the third time in June of that year, he tailed off badly. He finished far back in the Pacific Classic, then was switched to grass and ran last in the Oak Tree Mile. The last time he ran on the main track, which was over Santa Anita's Cushion Track, five state-breds outran him in the California Cup. In the last three races before his so-called retirement, all on grass, he was never better than third and finished last in the Eddie Read Handicap.
Racing in the U.S is hungry for stars. With Rachel Alexandra on hiatus, and Zenyatta running sparingly this year, there are too many empty gaps in the calendar. Recently asked to name the five best horses in the world, it was a stretch for me to include two from the U.S. on the list. But even on this score, Lava Man was never a national factor and would be of no help should there be a second career. His five starts outside California were abysmal. "A very bad shipper," says his trainer, Doug O'Neill, but the results are still there, staring you in the face.
The last time I didn't want to be at a race was Serena's Song's Black-Eyed Susan in 1995. Less than two weeks prior, she had finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby. Her trainer, Wayne Lukas, had seen his Union City break down and be put down in the Preakness two years before. I stood on the catwalk in front of the Pimlico press box and hoped that I wouldn't be writing another Union City story. But I guess Lukas knew his filly or knew the opposition, or both. Serena's Song won by what seemed like half the length of the stretch. I hope O'Neill and his owners get just as lucky with Lava Man. In racing, there's a paucity of good stories that don't shoot the game in the foot. But I'm too gutless to show up to find out.