I was thinking all day about what I was going to write about LAVA MAN winning his third consecutive Hollywood Gold Cup. But only in horse racing can a huge story like that get usurped the next day by an even bigger story—a four-day Pick Six carryover (for only the second time in HP history) with over $3.2 million into Monday’s “holiday” card.

After more craziness on Sunday—including $172 winner BRIGHT PREDICTION—no one was able to come close to hitting the Pick Six, despite over $3.4 million being bet into the pool. One trifecta paid $6,600, with superfectas paying $64,599 and $28,792. The Pick 3′s ending in races 6-8 paid $3,233, $2,291, $1,722 and $31,040. And the late Pick paid more than $141,000. Life-changing possibilities but who could string them together properly? Monday’s pool figures to threaten the North American record of $7.3 million set at Santa Anita on Mar. 3, 2004. With much shorter field sizes and every horse player from across the nation in the pool, the Pick 6 almost has to be hit tomorrow.

On Sunday: David Flores rode four winners, including win machine CITRONNADE in the featured Beverly Hills and impressive 2-year-old filly TASHA’S MIRACLE in the opener. Based on the way she broke her maiden, TASHA’S MIRACLE probably would have been the one to beat in yesterday’s Landaluce. She looks like a very serious filly and I’m making her the early favorite for the Del Mar Debutante later this summer…one that got away from Flores was KRIS’ SIS, who had a brutal trip in the 5th. Between that and MOSTACOLLI MORT being disqualifed in the 8th, trainer Julio Canani probably left the track talking to himself.

Exciting vs. Great:

First, let me start by saying I love LAVA MAN. He’s everything you could want in a racehorse—a tenacious, tough, versatile, durable, win machine. Seventeen wins from 40 lifetime starts, dirt and turf, racking up over $5 million in earnings. The most profitable claim in the history of racing, who has been handled superbly by Doug O’Neill and his team. And winning Saturday’s Gold Cup for the third straight year (to match the legendary Native Diver), his 10th win from his last 11 starts in California, is an awesome accomplishment. The race was extremely exciting, with LAVA MAN edging clear of A. P. XCELLENT in the last few jumps and holding off longshot BIG BOOSTER, who was charging up on the outside.

But I hear the word “great” being thrown around a lot. “It was a great race…he’s a great horse.” But was it really a great race, or was it more accurately an exciting race with big-time historical ramifications? And is the old gelding truly a great horse, or more accurately a very good horse who has taken advantage of subpar Southern California competition to rack up win after win?

As a handicapper and one who tries to dispassionately analyze races, my first thought after the initial thrill of a great stretch run was: What a lousy race for a Grade I. Why? Because after an absurdly slow early pace (:48.3, 1:13.1, 1:37.4) weren’t the first two horses supposed to finish out a whole lot better than the final 1/4-mile in :25.2? The final times for sprint races played about par all day long, so it’s unlikely that the track played slow for the only main track route race on the card. Visually I thought the one-two finishers labored through the lane, not looking at all the way Grade I horses are supposed to finish given their soft trips. Flash back to the Preakness or Belmont Stakes this year—that’s the way Grade I horses should finish. By any objective numerical ratings system one uses (Beyer figures, Handicapper’s Report, Sheets), this was a low-rated race. If that sounds cynical to the casual fan, so be it. The name of the handicapping game is properly analyzing what you see and trying to use it to your advantage next time.

Is Lava Man a great horse? This is purely subjective, but to me the answer is no. He might have been a great horse for a three-race stretch in the summer of ’05 when he rattled off wins in the Californian, Gold Cup and ran third in a fast Pacific Classic while getting Beyer ratings of 116, 120 and 112. But his Achilles’ heel will always be the five resounding defeats when shipping out of California and the suspect competition he has faced in many of his biggest victories. Does he compare to the greats we’ve seen in California like Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and John Henry? No, but you sure have to admire him and his accomplishments, all the while wishing you were the one who had dropped that $50,000 claiming slip.

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