Above image of Lava Man enjoying time as a lead pony courtesy of Eclispe Sportswire.
The Ride of a Lifetime is the third of a 3-part series chronicling Catie Staszak's encounter with California champion Lava Man.
The Ride of a Lifetime
As I stood before Lava Man, mesmerizingly stroking the white blaze on his forehead, Rivera walked up to me, introducing himself.
“Do you want me to take him out for you to take pictures?” he asked.
Clutching my camera bag, I nodded emphatically, and I got a full appreciation for Lava Man’s daunting physical presence as he was led out. His bay coat contained dozens of dazzling dapples. His muscles rippled as he walked by, his step strong.
“He’s more sound now than ever,” Rivera commented.
Rivera mounted Lava Man and walked around briefly for some photographs. I snapped excessively. Then he suddenly dismounted, and I heard the seven words that every rider wants to hear.
“Do you want to get on now?”
I stood, stunned, but it only took about a millisecond for my mind to grasp the meaning of the question. My fondest hope was about to become a reality. I said, “Yes!” before Rivera could change his mind.
With one swift movement, I found myself atop one of the greatest champions of Thoroughbred racing. I’d ridden dozens of successful jumpers, competed at the prestigious National Horse Show, and even took the aforementioned Funny Cide for a walk once, but never before had I felt so honored to be in the saddle. There was an incredible amount power beneath me, but Lava Man did not move, instead waiting patiently for my command.
STASZAK ABOARD LAVA MAN
I squeezed my legs against his sides, and he walked forward obediently. We strolled the path beside the backstretch and then took a tour around the shedrow. My mind whirled, but I took each moment in. When I arrived at Lava Man’s stall again, I knew my ride was over.
I dismounted and immediately wrapped my arms around Lava Man’s neck. At that moment, he was no longer just a champion. He was my partner, my friend.
I will never forget that feeling.
“Thank you,” just wasn’t enough.
Setting an Example
While Lava Man still spends the majority of his time on the racetrack, his job now extends far beyond the confines of the backstretch. Due to his immense popularity, the gelding has become a promoter – an ambassador of sorts – of horse racing, a sport whose reputation has suffered in recent years.
The number of equine deaths on racetracks in the state of California rose by five percent during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Moreover, according to Forbes, more than 10,000 United States Thoroughbreds end up in slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico each year. Many of them are either unsuccessful racehorses or retired Thoroughbreds unable to go to stud. At one point, Lava Man fell into both of those categories.
“I actually dangled (Lava Man) in a claiming race early in his 4-year-old year,” O’Neill said. “Thank God I didn’t lose him.”
Instead of falling into the wrong hands, Lava Man stayed close to home and became the poster child – err, horse – for Thoroughbreds with successful second careers. The Doug O’Neill Racing Stable welcomes fans to its barn on a regular basis to demonstrate that their horses are well cared for and happy, and that they enjoy their jobs.
Lava Man has been at the head of it all. Through the Make a Wish Foundation, he made more headlines last year when he formed a special bond with Hope Hudson, a 12-year-old with a rare connective tissue disorder called Hajdu-Cheney Syndrome. While in town for the Fountain of Youth, Lava Man also spent a morning at Gulfstream’s weekly “Breakfast at Gulfstream” event, greeting fans who came to watch the morning workouts. Through it all, he’s set an example that others are beginning to follow. For instance, the retired gelding Awesome Gem, a $3 million earner in his own right, is now being retrained as a pony for his trainer, Craig Dollase.
“I think it’s been really good for [the racing industry],” Sisterson said.
Lava Man has illustrated that racehorses’ careers are not finished when they leave the winner’s circle for the last time. By rising from the lowest to the highest ranks of the sport in the most unlikely manner, he has become an inspirational champion both on and off the track.
“He gives so much to us,” O’Neill said. “He’s gone from a Grade 1 racehorse to a Grade 1 pony. He’s just a gift that keeps on giving.”
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire