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Lava Man returns to form with victory

ARCADIA, Calif. --Lava Man returned to form following two lopsided losses, finishing powerfully to win Saturday's Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Corey Nakatani, Lava Man was close to the pace most of the way, rallied to the front early in the stretch and finished 2 1/4 lengths in front of Whos Crying Now. Texcess was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third.

The $1 million Classic was the featured race on the annual bi-coastal card at Santa Anita and Gulfstream, with the fields limited to horses bred in California or Florida.

The Gulfstream races marked the riding finale for Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. He finished 11th and fourth in his first two races, then headed into retirement following a second-place finish aboard odds-on favorite Silver Tree in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf.

Miesque's Approval, a 50-1 long shot, won the race.

Lava Man carried 122 pounds and was clocked in 1:49.98 over the 1 1-8 miles at Santa Anita. He paid $7.80, $5.40 and $4.40. Whos Crying Now returned $9.60 and $6.20, and Texcess paid $7.60. Wagering favorite Buzzards Bay fell far behind early and wound up fourth.

After a dazzling 8 3/4-length victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup last July, Lava Man finished third behind winner Borrego and Perfect Drift in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Then, apparently hampered by a sore front left foot, he was beaten by 45 1/2 lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, and by 17 1/4 lengths in a Tokyo race.

Trainer Doug O'Neill gave the son of Slew City Slew time off to heal, and began using a special shoe on him before sending the 5-year-old gelding back out for the Sunshine Millions Classic.

O'Neill said even he had begun to doubt Lava Man.

"If I wasn't connected to this horse, I would have said this horse had lost it," the trainer said. "Sure, he was running great, but after they run a couple of clunkers. ... This game is full of excuses when you don't run good and I was just worried that maybe I was making up too many whoppers.

"But he finally ran like he had been training. There are so many downers in this business, to have a race like that in a $1 million race, that's pretty incredible."

Nakatani said the race went almost exactly as he hoped.

"We wanted to make them run, make them commit, then get to the outside and put in a very nice run and that's exactly what happened," the jockey said.

Claimed for $50,000 in the summer of 2004, Lava Man earned $550,000 for owners Jason Wood and Steve and David Kenly and now has earned more than $1.5 million in his career.

Moscow Burning, after finishing a total of 1 1/2 lengths behind winner Valentine Dancer in the last two Sunshine Millions filly and mare turf races, finally got the best of the rivalry. David Flores rode Moscow Burning to a 1 1/2 victory over Beneficial Bartok for a $4.60 win, the jockey's second victory of the afternoon in the four Santa Anita races on the card. Valentine Dancer faded to ninth in the 11-horse field.

Hot Storm won the $300,000 filly and mare sprint, 1 3/4 lengths in front of Western Hemisphere. Hot Storm, with Flores up, ran the six furlongs in 1:09.44 and paid $8 for the victory.

The Bob Baffert-trained Da Stoops, ridden by Victor Espinoza, romped to a 7 1/2-length victory in the $250,000 dash for 3-year-olds. Da Stoops, named after Arizona football coach Mike Stoops, was clocked in 1:08.94 for the six furlongs and paid $4.60 for the win.

At Gulfstream, Bordonaro won the $300,000 Padua Stables Sprint, House of Fortune took the $500,000 Ocala Breeders' Sales Distaff, and Joint Effort won the $250,000 Ocala Stud Oaks.

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