Lava Man: From Fairy Tale to Pony Tale

As long as Doug O’Neill keeps sending horses on the Derby trail, the legend of Lava Man will continue to grow, as will America’s affection for the country’s most famous stable pony. ~ Steve Haskin

Lava Man: From Fairy Tale to Pony Tale

By Steve Haskin


How can a stable pony steal the thunder from two Kentucky Derby winners and a Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner? Very easily if his name is Lava Man.

When fans visited trainer Doug O’Neill’s barn at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park in 2012 it was to see Lava Man as much as it was I’ll Have Another, who looked like a cinch to capture the Triple Crown before he suffered an injury the day before the Belmont Stakes. Throughout that year’s Triple Crown, photographers took as many photos of Lava Man as they did I’ll Have Another as he was accompanied to the track by his illustrious lead pony.

That scene was repeated in 2016 when Lava Man shared in another Kentucky Derby victory, this time with champion 2-year-old Nyquist.

Five years later, in 2021, Lava Man showed that his popularity had not diminished in the slightest, and perhaps was even stronger, as he became the traveling companion for Hot Rod Charlie as he journeyed across the country five times, making stops in New Orleans, Louisville, New York City, Oceanport, and Philadelphia. When Charlie was voted the Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner as America’s most popular horse, some of the voters admitted they looked at him as an extension of Lava Man, who at the age of 20 still was the most beloved horse in the country. Some even suggested a special Vox Populi Award be given to Lava Man.

It was not only Lava Man’s sensational career as a racehorse that made him so popular it was his endearing personality. The first time I saw him in his new career was when he stepped off the van with I’ll Have Another at Churchill Downs. It didn’t take long for the flocks of fans to converge on O’Neill’s barn to see his superstar turned pony. One morning I was at the barn, and there was Lava Man walking by himself unattended in the shedrow as if just casually taking a stroll. He stopped by the large feed bin, reached down and opened it with the tip of his nose, grabbed a quick bite to eat and continued on his way. It was obvious to an Easterner who had not been around Lava Man that this was no ordinary horse.

We are all aware that Lava Man was an institution in Southern California, having raced until he was 8, winning seven Grade 1 stakes and earning over $5.2 million. But his was the true rags to riches story or Cinderella fairy tale or whatever name you want to give it.

So let’s go back nearly 20 years to where it all began.

June 19, 2003 was a warm, humid day in Stockton, California, with a brisk 20 mile-an-hour-wind. Those that attended the races at the San Joaquin Fair were there just for fun and certainly were not looking for any future stakes horses, never mind superstars. The fourth race on the card, a $12,500 maiden claiming race for 2-year-olds, had no particular meaning, and you can bet no one paid any attention whatsoever to the fourth-place finisher – a 35-1 shot named Lava Man, who was racing for his owner, breeder, and trainer Lonnie Arterburn, along with several partners.

Following three more defeats, at Santa Rosa Fair and Bay Meadows, Lava Man finally broke his maiden by four lengths on the turf at Golden Gate under jockey Francisco Duran. Even then, the gelded son of Slew City Slew had character and charisma, and made people notice him.

“I felt he was a special horse in his own way,” Duran said years later. “He was an incredible horse to ride, and he had a special demeanor about him. He also had a wonderful attitude toward everything he did. We all thought he was a good horse, but obviously we had no idea how far up the ladder he was going to climb. I don’t know how to explain how he got this good, but he’s evolved into an amazing horse.”

Lava Man followed up his maiden win with a starter allowance victory, but lost his next four starts before winning an allowance race on the grass at Bay Meadows by a nose. Arterburn had removed his blinkers for the race, and Lava Man showed tremendous courage to win after a stretch-long duel.

On July 28, 2004, Lava Man was entered in a $62,500 claiming race on the grass at Del Mar. One person who had his eye on the horse was Steve Kenly, who wanted to claim him for his STD partnership (with his father Dave and sister Tracy) and Jason Wood, but was talked out of it by his trainer Doug O’Neill.

“On the form and on the Sheets, I just felt $62,500 was too much money,” O’Neill said.

Kenly, who had been looking specifically for 3-year-old Cal-breds, because of the state’s lucrative program, had his eye on several horses and Lava Man was one of them.

“Doug said there were more negatives than positives, and I told him, ‘Well, let’s watch him,’ Kenly recalled. “He was coming from Bay Meadows, and for whatever reason, I decided to wait. I watched the race with interest anyway and took notes.”

Lava Man finished sixth in the race, but had a ton of trouble, getting squeezed and trapped between horses. Kenly remembered that and stored it in the back of his head in case the horse showed up again for a price.

Meanwhile, Arterburn hadn’t realized what kind of a bullet he had dodged. Would he tempt fate again?

The answer, sadly for him, was yes. On August 13, Lava Man was back at Del Mar, this time for a $50,000 tag.

“I never should have run him back down there,” Arterburn said. “You go down to that claiming pit at Del Mar and you’re asking for trouble. They claim crazy down there, and I never should have taken him there. I really liked the horse. He had a great personality; almost a clown. He was like a big kid, always wanting attention. He was a one of a kind character, and we tried to protect him the best we could.”

Arterburn had a soft spot in his heart for Lava Man, having claimed his dam, Li’l Ms. Leonard for $16,000 at Bay Meadows and winning several races with her. He then partnered up with his friend, veterinarian Kim Kuhlman and wife Eve, breeding Li’l Ms. Leonard to Slew City Slew and getting Lava Man, who was foaled on March 20, 2001 at Carol Lingenfelter’s Poplar Meadows Farm in Sanger, California.

Kuhlmannwas friends with trainer Mike Puype, so instead of shipping Lava Man back to Northern California following their narrow escape at Del Mar, they decided to leave him with Puype at Hollywood Park and let him train down there for a couple of weeks. When a $50,000 claiming race showed up in the book, Puype told Arterburn about it. Arterburn had Puype enter the horse and saddle him in his absence. It was a decision he has regretted every day since.

“He had gotten beat for $62,500 and was 9-1 in that race,” Arterburn said. “The bettors there didn’t give him any respect, and I thought the trainers wouldn’t give him any respect either.”

He was right about the trainers, but didn’t count on an owner.

“I actually was seriously thinking about scratching him right before the race, because I started to feel afraid that we might lose the horse,” Arterburn said. “For some reason, I didn’t, and now I’m sick as a dog that I didn’t go by my gut and scratch him. We paid the price.”

Kenly, meanwhile, had been on the lookout for Lava Man, and was delighted to see him show up for $50,000. This time, there was no stopping him. When he saw him entered, he called O’Neill and told him, “Well, you just saved us $12,500.” As it turned out, Kenly’s was the only claim.

But O’Neill and his brother Dennis still were less than enamored with the horse. “Doug actually was even more negative than he was the first time,” Kenly recalled. “His running line was bad, and Doug thought he might be unsound. But he had a horrible run last out, and it was a typical Del Mar turf race where horses get steadied and never get out. He was trapped in there the entire race.”

“The beauty of Steve is that when he gets locked in on a horse he goes after it,” O’Neill said. “He had seen all the trouble he had gotten into in his previous race. So, we felt as long as the horse looked good in the paddock we were going to claim him. Lonnie had him looking great, and we put in the claim. I definitely feel bad for him, because I’ve lost a few Grade I horses myself and it does get to you. This can be a brutal game at times. There are a lot more disappointments and heartaches than there are high-fives.”

It was decided to point Lava Man for the Pomona Derby at Fairplex. They ran him in the Derby Trial and he won by 6 1/4 lengths in his first start for his new connections. He then finished a well-beaten third in the Pomona Derby and proceeded to lose his next six races. But he did finish second in the California Cup Classic and On Trust Handicap for Cal-breds before finishing a game second to Rock Hard Ten in the Grade I Malibu Stakes. It was just a matter of time before he put it all together.

But just when it looked as if his career was about take off, he lost his form that winter, turning in three poor performances in state-bred stakes, including the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream in his first trip outside California. It was time for some re-evaluation.

It was now O’Neill’s and Kenly’s turn to flirt with destiny. Arterburn, still upset over losing the horse, waited patiently, hoping to see Lava Man back in for a price. He was determined to get the horse back. It took a year, but there he was, on May 14, 2005, entered for a $100,000 claiming price.

Unfortunately for Arterburn, he was in the process of moving to Florida in an attempt to upgrade his stock and was unable to come up with the money. It was that move that had precipitated his putting Lava Man in for $50,000. And now it was that same move that prevented him from getting him back.

“I was in the middle of real estate deals trying to get a farm bought,” Arterburn said. “I couldn’t find any partners who were interested in claiming him for that price, and I couldn’t afford to claim him back myself. It was bad timing for me and good timing for them. It was ironic, in a bad way, that we let him slip through our fingers because at the time we were in the pursuit of getting better horses some day.

“After that, it all went rosy for them. When he started running so good, I said to myself, ‘That’s it, I’ll never see him again. Game over.”

As Lava Man developed into a Grade I winner and then a legend, becoming the first horse to sweep the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year and emulating Native Diver’s feat of winning three consecutive runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup, Arterburn became more distressed over his misfortune.

“It’s almost killed me,” he said as Lava Man turned 7. “It’s not even the money, because I’ve earned breeders awards every time the horse runs. I would give all the money back if I could do everything over. It just tears me up, but what can I do? You hope for a horse like that to come along some day, and there’s no way I’ll ever get something like that again. I’ve always been a claiming trainer and this has made me hate claiming. All I can do is keep trying, but it’s hard to swallow. That’s why I’ll be glad the day Lava Man retires, because it still hurts.”

Kenly had lucked out getting Lava Man, as all the forces seemed to be working in his favor. So, why in the world did he and O’Neill decide to tempt fate and put a Grade I-placed horse in a claiming race, albeit for $100,000?

“Doug is a gambler and a pretty aggressive trainer when it comes to claiming races, and the horse had two bad outs and he thought he could get away with it,” Kenly said. “I was against it and just kind of went along with him. I remember telling him, ‘We can’t replace this horse for $100,000; no chance in hell.’ I stayed in Phoenix and watched the horse win in fast time with blinkers on, and was nervous as hell until I got a hold of Doug. I said, ‘Please tell me we didn’t lose him,’ and he said, ‘That (expletive) Hollendorfer.’ When he said that my stomach just fell out; I turned from a nice tan to white. Then he told me he was kidding. I said I’d get him back if it’s the last thing I do. He really got me with Hollendorfer, because he’s the kind of guy who would claim a horse like this. He’s famous for coming down from Northern California and taking high-priced claimers.”

So began the ride of a lifetime for all of Lava Man’s connections, who saw him become the first horse to win Grade 1 stakes on dirt, grass, and synthetic, and in addition to winning the historic Hollywood Gold Cup three times, becoming one of only three horses to win back-to-back runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap. He also took them to Japan and Dubai.

Lava Man’s third Hollywood Gold Cup victory had to be his most memorable. He had started off 2007 with a second Big Cap victory, but, at age 6, he was sent to Dubai for the Dubai Duty Free and like most American shippers he could not handle the turf at Nad Al Sheba and was badly beaten. The question was how he would rebound from that experience. Many horses can take three or four months to bounce back to top form, but Lava Man came back in just over two months and finished a strong second in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap on grass.

Then came the Hollywood Gold Cup, which turned out to be the most gut-wrenching stretch run of his career. At the quarter pole, he collared the front-running A. P. Xcellent, who he had been tracking through slow fractions. But A. P. Xcellent proved to be a stubborn foe and kept battling back. He had his head in front every step of the way down the stretch until Lava Man, fighting him every inch of the way, gave one final desperate lunge and stuck his nose in front right on the wire. A frantic Vic Stauffer, calling the race as if urging Lava Man on, let out with a resounding “Yes!” followed by “There’s the original rags to riches.”

On July 20, 2008, four years after being claimed, Lava Man finished sixth in the Eddie Read Handicap on grass. X-rays taken after the race seemed just a bit off, but that was enough to announce his retirement. However, 17 months went by and, remarkably, Lava Man, at age 8, seemed restless and ready to return to action. He was pronounced 100 percent sound, so they decided to give it a shot. But when he finished last after setting the pace in the San Gabriel Handicap he was retired for good.

There were three options for him: live out his days at Old Friends Retirement Facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, train him to be a hunter/jumper, or seeing if he would take to the job of stable pony for O’Neill, which would keep him close to home. It took him about six months to settle in, but it became obvious he enjoyed the role of stable pony and so began his second career.

At the 2012 Derby, Lava Man became an instant celebrity. Hall of Fame quarterback and TV analyst Terry Bradshaw, who is a horse lover, stopped by O’Neill’s barn and had his picture taken with Lava Man.

Dennis O’Neill told Sports Illustrated, “He’s very mellow around the other horses. He’s like their dad. He leads them around and he’s really good with babies. I’ll Have Another and him are best buds. They go everywhere together.”

So, that pretty much is the story of Lava Man and the contrasting fortunes of two men. Kenly gives thanks every day for the fortunes that smiled down on him. But, he still never takes anything for granted.

“In this game, the minute you start getting cocky and think you know it all, the racing gods will strike you down with a thundering blow,” he said. “It’s been a fairy tale, and we were living right in the middle of it. You have to ask, ‘Where is this book going to go?’ It’s been like a great novel already and you just hope it doesn’t end. You know it will someday, and when it does, you just have to say, ‘Look what he’s done for us. He’s put us in the spotlight; he can’t do any more.’ We always knew it would be a sad day when it ended. But on the flip side, we’re so appreciative to have been involved with a horse like this. No matter what happens, it’s in the books, and you can never take that way. It’s history.”

And that history has continued for another 13 years after his retirement, with the racing world falling in love with Lava Man all over again, as he proudly escorts O’Neill’s top horses around the country, leading them to the track and in the post parade, perhaps giving them a pointer or two from an old pro.

In between he will pose for photos, greet visitors, have little children put on his back, and enjoy all the attention given to him by two generations of racing fans and horse lovers.

As we head into 2022, Lava Man’s “Travels With Charlie” will have to be put on hold for a while as his number one pupil prepares to head off to Dubai for an extended stay. But the old boy still has a barn full of students back home who need his services, especially newly turned 3-year-old Slow Down Andy, who could wind up paying Lava Man’s way back east on another Triple Crown journey. But he, like I’ll Have Another, Nyquist, and Hot Rod Charlie, will come to the realization he will have to play second fiddle to one of the most extraordinary horses of our lifetime.

Photos courtesy of Doug O’Neill Racing Stable, Del Mar Racetrack, Marcie Heacox.

Please note, Lava Man’s original race-worn winning shoe from his record-tying third victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup will be offered as part of the Secretariat ‘Vox Populi” Auction beginning Jan.6 on eBay.

The authenticated shoe, still caked with actual dirt from long-departed Hollywood Park, is accompanied by a mint condition track program from 2007 Gold Cup day, a rare “The Story of Lava Man” DVD, assorted photos, and even a large cutting of his tail hair. A wonderful opportunity to own a special piece of racing history from one of its most beloved and accomplished horses.


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