A record Sunshine Millions Day crowd of 36,355 was on hand at Santa Anita Park on Saturday, and many came out to see local hero Lava Man, who rattled off seven straight stakes wins in 2006 before disappointing in the Breeders' Cup Classic denying him a chance at an Eclipse Award. Trainer Doug O'Neill switched him to turf to keep him at home at Santa Anita rather than have to ship him to Florida for the Classic, and also as a prep for a possible start in Dubai in the Duty Free at the same distance on the Nad al Sheba turf.
His many fans, who bet him down to 7-10 favoritism, did not go home disappointed, as the former claimer stalked the pace three deep to the outside of pacesetters Wild Buddy and Running Free, then took advantage at the top of the stretch, drawing away under mild urging from jockey Corey Nakatani to win the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf by 2 lengths in 1:47.67 for the 1 1/8 miles over the firm course.
Winning jockey Corey Nakatani said, "He's the Lava Man of old. He's just a warrior. There's not much more you can say about him. His stride doesn't change on turf or dirt. When horses are good, as this horse is, I think he deserves to be a champion. Unfortunately, he didn't get a mention for Horse of the Year. He had one bad race last year, and I was really disappointed in the voting. There's no question he's the best horse I've been on. He'll always have a place in my heart, and I'll be telling his story to my grandkids one day." Trainer O'Neill added, "We'll have a glass of champagne and talk over grass or dirt and map out his next race, but either way, he'll be ready. We'll just enjoy every moment for now. He's given us a lot of pleasure. He ran dynamite. He exceeded our expectations."
Florida-bred 6-1 shot Joint Effort saved ground early in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff while racing in fifth behind the pace set by 6-5 favorite Take D'Tour. Around the far turn, jockey Eddie Castro took Joint Effort wide and she passed the favorite inside the 3/16 pole, drawing away to a 5 length win in 1:43.36. It was a long2 3/4 lengths back to 18-1 Getback Time in third.
Winning jockey Eddie Castro said, "I just stayed in behind the speed horse (Take D' Tour) past the 3/8 (pole) and at the top of the stretch, I was very confident ...It's nice to come out here and ride for Mr. Romans. My agent did a good job getting me on this filly." Trainer Dale Romans added, "This is a big (win) because it's her first win around two turns with tested company. I think it opens a whole lot of doors and it gives her another race track she seems to like. Some tracks, she doesn't seem to run as well on. We don't have anything in mind (for her next race) but I'm sure it will have something to do with Churchill Downs."
Florida-bred 7-1 shot Smokey Stover, from the same connections as the late Lost in the Fog, stalked the pace to the outside of 5-1 speedster Proud Tower Too and 11-10 favorite Bordonaro. Staying wide throughout, Smokey Stover took the lead at the 3/16 pole and drove clear to a 3 1/4 length win in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint over Proud Tower Too, with Bordonaro another 1 1/2 length back in third.
Winning owner Harry Aleo said, "When he first came onto the racetrack, Greg (trainer Gilchrist) wasn't sure who was better, him or Lost in the Fog. Greg's done a great job with him. It's exciting and even though he's a Florida-bred, this is a nice shot in the arm for northern California." Jockey Aaron Gryder added, "The way it turned out, Proud Tower Too outbroke Bordonaro and he had three lengths on everybody right away. I was fine with that because where I was, it didn't matter. When we got to the turn, my horse switched to his left lead and I said 'wow.' I didn't want to make the lead too early and he settled very nicely at that point. He was absolutely full of run. He's a very talented horse."
California-bred 2-1 favorite Mistical Plan sat back in eighth between horses down the backstretch well off the pace of 13-1 Double Major during the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks, then found room on the inside on the turn. Through the stretch, Mistical Plan angled to the outside, and when asked by jockey David Flores, passed tiring horses to just get up for the win, by a nose over 11-1 Tiz Elemental in 1:10.50. It was a long 3 1/2 lengths back to Double Major in third.
Winning rider David Flores said, "Around the turn, I was trying to follow (Tiz Elemental) and at the 3/16th (pole) it opened up a little bit at the rail and we got through. It was close, but I thought we won it." Trainer Doug O'Neill added, "I thought coming off two route races might dull her speed a little bit. David (Flores) just did a great job of staying relaxed, not panicking and once the hole opened up, she got through. I thought the other horse might have had her nose down at the right time, but I'm just so happy it worked out perfect."