While nearby cities prepare for lunch hour at local delis, Knight’s Ferry, California, a sleepy, modest town all but untouched by modern society, lies nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. It’s a place illumined by aged lamp posts —an ice cream shoppe which doubles as a take-what-you-need library for locals, as well as souls passing through and needing a rest stop, a good read, and a rainbow sherbet, is tucked just off of Main Street. A firehouse as old as the one-horse town itself neighbors it — and just over the hill that provides a rustic backdrop to this street is a quaint elementary school.
The clock rests at 11:47am in Ms. Berry’s third grade classroom. She gingerly reads aloud the final page of a picture book, before gently cooing, “The End.” As she closes it, the book’s binding creaks ever so slightly, and a man in a red cape can be seen, painted in great detail, on the book’s front cover. She gazes ahead, smiling at the children before her, some too wearing red capes — some wearing pink — some, in fireman costumes. It’s Red Ribbon Week at Knight’s Ferry School, and today is Hero Day.
Sitting in the furthest row of the classroom is a boy called Ben Kellogg. Ben taps his foot in anxiousness, watching the children at the front of the room speak of their heroes, awaiting his turn to speak of his. He’s typically a quiet boy — smaller than the others in his class. He wears fiery hair atop his head. Orange speckles color his cheeks.
“Ben, it’s your turn,” Ms. Berry calls out in her sing-song voice. The small boy, not dressed in a cape or costume, stands and makes his way to the front of the room. He unrolls an 8×10 photograph, slightly creased from the nervous hands which spent the past 30 minutes clenched about it. He realizes the photograph is upside down, and quickly spins it right side up.
He clears his throat — “My hero… is Lava Man.”
Ben is unlike the majority of children his age. While some grow up reading comic books, he educates himself on horses. By way of YouTube, he has grown to become, what he calls, “A horse expert.” He explains his love for Roy Rogers and Trigger; He tells me of Mr. Ed. He then continues, “If ever there was a horse who could be called a hero, that horse would be Lava Man.” I looked into Ben’s pale eyes and told him, “Ben, I think you’re right… see, it’s not often a one-time claimer grows to become one of the greatest that’s ever lived.”
Every live racing day, at every track in America, you will find claiming horses. These horses are typically a cut below the big time. You won’t often see their names added to the record books, and it’s highly likely you’ll never know their names at all. So, when a once in a lifetime horse, needing guidance and someone to believe in him was discovered in a level much lower than that of which he was actually capable, it set the stage for a legend that will outlive the horse, the people closest to him, myself, and even little Ben.
This, is the legend of Lava Man.
He was born in the spring of 2001. A son of Slew City Slew, with his birth came the reality that he did not possess the pedigree of a champion. So, the striking bay gelding would begin his career in low-level claiming races — coincidentally in Stockton, California — a mere 50 minutes away from the library in which Ben comfortably sits at the computer desk with me, watching Lava Man replays. When I tell him this fact, he laughs — “Man, I wish I had been born back then,” as if it were lifetimes ago.
Lava Man would continue to struggle in claiming races, until he was entered in an 8 furlong turf race at Bay Meadows, a racetrack now closed and forgotten, in San Mateo, California. Finishing a brave second, it was then that the eyes of young trainer Doug O’Neill, and owners Jason Wood and STD Racing Stable fell upon the horse which would come to carry them to heights which they never thought attainable.
While the partnership did not immediately choose to add him to their stable, they would continue to watch his progress, awaiting the opportune moment at which to make a move. On August 13, 2004, Lava Man was entered to run in a $50,000 claiming race at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. He would gut it out to the wire to finish second — but this time, he would be guided to the backside, and to a different barn — the barn of Doug O’ Neill. After months of carefully watching — anxiously waiting — Lava Man, recognized by the partnership as a diamond in the rough, had a new home, a new game plan, and a future of endless possibility.
In his debut start since being claimed, the gelding would win at first asking for his new team, clearing a field of high caliber horses in the Derby Trial Stakes. He would continue to collect dominating victories in Southern California, giving his connections every reason to believe that he was capable of competing at the highest level.
The decision was made to enter Lava Man in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes — a one turn, 7 furlong sprint amongst a field that included numerous graded stakes winners, including a massive, imposing athlete by the name of Rock Hard Ten. Lava Man would run harder than he had ever run before, and would lose to the mammoth colt, by a 1/2 length. For his team, sure — it was a loss. But more than a loss, it was confirmation that the former claimer belonged among the very best in America.
He would begin his 4 year old season with numerous losses — finishing off the board. However, the ever developing, hard-trying gelding would take a turn for the better, and stood on the precipice of becoming one of the best Cal-Breds the sport had ever seen.
His career would not be a flawless one. Even after Lava Man began to truly understand his job, he would experience highs and lows as most athletes do — great success, and great failure.
He would go nearly a year undefeated, capturing victories in the Sunshine Millions Classic, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, the TVG Khaled Stakes, the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap, the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, the Grade 1 Pacific Classic, and the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap, before suffering the almost forgotten taste of defeat in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, held at Churchill Downs. It is believed that the latter performance was the only blemish which stood in the way of Horse of the Year honors for Lava Man.
2007 would begin with two consecutive stakes wins, before the fan-favorite shipped to Dubai, only to finish a dismal 16th place. It was then that talk began — Lava Man could not win a race outside of California.
After returning home, he would return to the races at historic Hollywood Park — where he would finish second in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap. While it wasn’t a victory, it seemed that the Lava Man he had been for the past 12 months was looming just beneath the surface, ready to regain top form.
On June 30, 2007, he would claim one final career victory — a third consecutive Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. Lava Man would become just the second horse in history to achieve a Gold Cup three-peat — the only other being California immortal, Native Diver.
Unfortunately, the great gelding would finish his career with seven losses. The Lava Man who had so dominated a nation was no more. It is often believed that every great horse has a period of time in which they are unstoppable — burning with a brilliance as fleeting as it is remarkable — and when that brilliance runs out, it can never again be achieved. Perhaps it’s true — Perhaps Lava Man had reached a point, after amassing $5,268,706, in which the speed, stamina, and grit he had possessed for so long, ran out.
There were the naysayers, of course. The one’s which downplayed his ranks among the best in modern times, because a lack of ability to win outside of California. Sure, Lava Man’s brilliance was subject to the state in which he was running — at least that’s how it appears on paper. The truth is, we will never know why a horse such as he, who now serves as O’Neill’s pony horse, teaching young racehorses the way of winners, didn’t win all over the world.
I take a moment and ask Ben, who is sitting next to me as we watch the 2006 Pacific Classic, why he doesn’t think a horse like Lava Man could perform on tracks outside of California. He looks up at me, his eyes briefly darting down to the screen, not wanting to miss a moment of the race replay he has surely seen a dozen times — “He was probably homesick.”
It was in that moment that Ben, being the horse expert he claims to be, reminded me that he is, in fact, a child. It was in that same moment, I realized the impact a horse like Lava Man has made — inspiring generations far beyond his own, to dream of greatness. That sometimes the “Little guy,” is the biggest guy in the room. That where you begin does not dictate where you will go — that inspiration can come from anything — even horses — lastly, that not all heroes wear capes. Some of them have four legs, big hearts, and the will to overcome all obstacles. Even a child, can see that.
I tell him — a smile creeping across my face — “You’re right, Ben. Lava Man was probably just homesick.”
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