Above image of Lava Man enjoying time with fans courtesy of Eclispe Sportswire.
New Beginnings is the second of a 3-part series chronicling Catie Staszak's encounter with California champion Lava Man.
Like college, the holiday season, and Michael Jordan’s basketball career, all good things must come to an end. After seven years of racing, a temporary retirement, and a brief comeback, Lava Man was officially retired in 2010. His ankles showed signs of arthritis, and his body could no longer handle the physical demands of competing at racing’s highest level.
When many male racehorses are retired, they go on to lavish careers at stud, living out their lives on luxurious farms and producing offspring that hopefully will carry on their winning legacies. According to the Jockey Club, 2,620 Thoroughbred stallions covered 39,838 mares during the 2011 breeding season, resulting in 22,500 live foals in 2012. A single breeding to the leading North American sire in 2012 cost $85,000. Between 1984 and 1987, it cost a record-breaking $1 million for a single breeding to Northern Dancer, cited as one of the “Top 100 Thoroughbred Champions of the 20th Century” by the Blood-Horse.
Lava Man was a gelding – a castrated horse – and unable to produce offspring, leaving his future up in the air. But the Doug O’Neill Racing Stable had an idea. O’Neill asked Lava Man’s owners if the gelding could remain in the barn and be retrained for a second career as a lead pony.
Lead ponies accompany racehorses to the track both for morning workouts and in the post parade prior to a race. These horses serve calming purposes and mentor young horses when they are in training. Most of the time, Quarter Horses with mellow dispositions get the job, but occasionally Thoroughbreds are retrained for the role.
Never before had a racehorse with a resume comparable to Lava Man’s successfully made the transition from fierce competitor to placid escort. In 2009, Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide ponied horses for his trainer Barclay Tagg, but the endeavor was short-lived after back soreness prevented him from keeping up with the job.
“I would definitely say I had doubts,” O’Neill said. “Initially, he still had it in his mind that he wanted to compete, and he had to mentally turn that off.”
O’Neill’s team took their time with Lava Man, and stable foreman Sabas Rivera was assigned the task of retraining the former superstar. For months, he spent hours each day after work teaching Lava Man to accept a new saddle and bridle, stand quietly, and not act out aggressively toward other horses.
“Sabas has a relationship [with Lava Man] where he could basically do anything he wants with him,” said Jack Sisterson, assistant to O’Neill. “He’s just fantastic with him.”
Rivera’s first language in Spanish, but when it comes to talking about Lava Man, the superlatives are expressed in English as clearly and emphatically as they would be in his native tongue.
“Fantastic, incredible, smart, confident,” Rivera answered when asked to describe Lava Man. “He’s still learning, but he knows his new job and likes being on the track. Every single day, that’s all he wants to do.”
Lava Man is now O’Neill’s first-string pony. Each day, he is out on the track from 5:30 to 10:30 a.m., accompanying anywhere from four to six sets of racehorses. Most often, those horses are 2-year-olds, the youngest and least-experienced horses in the barn.
“He definitely talks to them as he’s leading them to and from the track,” O’Neill said. “Ninety percent buy into it, and the ones who don’t generally aren’t good athletes.”
“He’s one of the coolest horses I’ve ever worked with,” Sisterson added. “He’s like a regular human being.”
So human-like is Lava Man that, after a long morning of work, he will walk freely around the barn, fetching his own grain and eating at his leisure without so much of a halter to restrain him (This video of Lava Man’s eating routine has been viewed over 26,000 times on YouTube).
If he isn’t ready to go back in his stall, Lava Man will angrily pin his ears and pivot his feet in the ground, refusing to move. Few dare to challenge him.
“He’s the boss, and he knows it,” Rivera said.
In 2011, Lava Man began working with a chestnut colt named I’ll Have Another. Owned by J. Paul Reddam of Reddam Racing, the 2-year-old showed promise as a Triple Crown contender after he was second in the Best Pal Stakes in just his second career start. At three, he won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
Lava Man went with him.
While the Derby is restricted to 3-year-olds, Lava Man did not reach his prime until he was 5 years old, meaning he never got his chance to compete in the “Run for the Roses.” But on May 5, 2012, Lava Man walked before a record crowd of 165,307 as he accompanied I’ll Have Another to the start of the 138th Kentucky Derby.
“He loved it out there,” Sisterson said. “The situation didn’t faze him one bit, and I think his presence really helped I’ll Have Another.”
One can only imagine what advice the champion gave to his pupil in the moments leading up to that race, but whatever equine message he gave, it worked. I’ll Have Another caught Bodemeister late to win the Derby, stamping his own place in the history books. And when the crowds visited O’Neill’s barn in the weeks following, they were not just there to get a glimpse of the Derby champion. They wanted to see old favorite Lava Man.
I'LL HAVE ANOTHER AND LAVA MAN
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
“Fans would come by just to see (Lava Man),” Sisterson said. “We’d bring him out of the stall, and he’d just stand there with his ears pricked, loving every bit of it.”
I’ll Have Another went on to win the Preakness Stakes before his Triple Crown bid came to a screeching halt when he had to be scratched from the Belmont Stakes with a tendon injury. He immediately was retired.
“They were a great pair together,” O’Neill said. “I’ll Have Another was a very laid back horse, and Lava Man was so amped and focused. You could tell [Lava Man] was teaching I’ll Have Another to keep his mind on things.”
One might have thought that Lava Man’s magical second run was then seemingly over, but the ‘coach’ is far from finished. This year, he returns to the Triple Crown trail with 3-year-olds Goldencents and He’s Had Enough. Goldencents won the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes, while He’s Had Enough was second in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Both could end up starting in the Kentucky Derby for O’Neill.
“If that happens, Lava Man is going to have to choose one of them,” Rivera said, only half-joking. “He can’t pony both.”