Racing: Bernardini faces torrid test in Lava Man
Wednesday 01 November 2006
Through the mesh fences and across the perimeter road, on the leaf-strewn decks of clapboard bungalows, Halloween pumpkins grin spitefully at the horses in the quarantine barn. But nothing can haunt the Europeans here more than their own memories.
On Saturday, they have two runners in the Breeders' Cup Classic: George Washington and David Junior. When America's most valuable race was last staged here, Michael Kinane got his reins tangled on Giant's Causeway and was thwarted only in a photo by Tiznow. Two years previously, Frankie Dettori gave Swain a wild ride, so intimidated by Silver Charm that he opened a path for Awesome Again and ended up third instead of first.
It is a measure of the intensity of this crucible that two of Europe's great jockeys should both have discovered infamy here. This time Kinane partners George Washington, while David Junior is ridden by Jamie Spencer, who endured a Breeders' Cup trauma of his own in Dallas two years ago.
Any nightmares they might have about the local opposition will inevitably be dominated by Bernardini, author of a sequence of slick, runaway wins in small fields. But he faces a very different task here, and many suspect that the real monster lurks in the shadows of Barn 36.
Certainly Lava Man conforms far more closely to the obdurate mould of Tiznow and Silver Charm. And even in this vintage field, it is the story of Lava Man that gives the Classic its real pepper - combining, as it does, extremes of romance and cynicism.
"Our Seabiscuit?" Leandro Mora looked up at the dreary dawn skies and beamed. "That's what he is in our stable, anyhow." Mora is right-hand man to Doug O'Neill, the trainer who has transformed Lava Man so dramatically since claiming him for just $50,000 (£26,000) in the summer of 2004. This year Lava Man became the first horse ever to sweep all three of California's defining prizes: the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. In all, he has now won over $3m and his proletarian origins and tenacious style mean that it is this five year-old gelding - and not George Washington - who is perceived as the logical foil to the aristocratic Bernardini.
"When he came to us he was a nervous wreck," Mora recalled. "But he's become much more professional in his mind, and much stronger in his body."
Yet that improvement has also provoked jealousy and suspicion. After the Pacific Classic, the trainer of one of the beaten horses caused uproar by hinting that the freakish winner must be sustained by illegal medication. Murray Johnson also suggested that the track had been groomed to favour the local champion. Johnson had just lost his father and quickly apologised to O'Neill for his emotional outburst, but the Californian racing authority issued an indignant statement confirming that the whole field had returned innocent samples.
In O'Neill's barn, there is no bitterness. "It was sad, when we had so much to celebrate," Mora said. "But instead of taking offence, we took it the other way round - as a chance to prove not to one man, but to everyone, what we can overcome. Let me put it this way. We run our horses anywhere without hesitation: Japan, Dubai, maybe even in England some day. If there's an opening, we'll take it. We have nothing to hide."
O'Neill is not yet in town, leaving Mora to supervise Lava Man's preparations. "This horse feels the same as we do," he said. "Very optimistic. He's eating well, training well, adapting well.
"We're the underdog, no question. But the thing about him is that he always gives his whole heart. In the Hollywood Gold Cup, I knew he was beaten. But in a picture taken at the wire you can see that mean look on the horse's face. He refused to give in. You had to respect him for that. Whatever happens, it's been a blast to have him. It could have been anyone else, but it happened to be us."
NB: Buster Hyvonen
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