Under a warm late fall sun peeking over a partly cloudy sky at Old Friends on Nov. 26, nearly 200 people welcomed them to their new home in Georgetown, Ky.
Known for his brilliance under the tutelage of West Coast trainer Doug O’Neill, the son of Slew City Slew retired from the track in 2009 with a record of 17-8-5 in 47 starts. He excelled for STD Racing Stable and Jason Wood, who claimed him for $50,000 in 2004 after his 13th start. The Hall of Famer is just as well known for serving as a stalwart pony for the past 13 years.
At 21, the California-bred gelding, who has earned more than $5 million, will live out the rest of his days at Pursânge Retirement Farm alongside his new stablemate. The silver charm and other history makers.
Old Friends founder Michael Blowen says it’s a fulfilling time to bring Lava Man home to the 236-acre farm he established in 2003.
Lava Man at Old Friends
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“When he retired from the track, I got a call from Jason Wood, one of his owners, and he said, ‘Can he come to Old Friends?’ He was supposed to come here 12-13 years ago,” Blowen said. “At the last minute Doug wanted him as a pony. And then they decided to keep it.
“I was deeply disappointed. This predates Silver Charm. I didn’t have a Lava Man-sized star. We had a lot of really good horses, but it would be like taking Elvis… They did the right thing. the horse obviously did a great job with the other horses and did what he was supposed to do. He was treated like the king he is. It all worked out and sometimes you just have to wait.”
The gelding arrived at the farm after being shipped from California to work his last shift at the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland. He has adapted well, according to Blowen, and doesn’t seem to mind the change in temperature.
“He’s a pro. He didn’t do that much in all those years on the track both when he was racing and when he was a pony because he didn’t know how to take care of himself. He’s got superior intelligence,” Blowen said . .
“People often equate horses with people. In some cases it’s accurate and in some cases it’s not, because I actually think he liked it colder. We already had a weather here that was 20 degrees and he was there. I had a blanket. him, but he was there, rolling and feeling fine. I don’t know that for sure, but so far it hasn’t bothered him at all. He hasn’t had a runny nose or anything like that.”
Among the fans who came out Saturday afternoon was Nancy Diersen, who traveled 7 1/2 hours from Richmond, Va., to spend time with “Lava.”
Diersen started following him “probably four years ago or so. I used to send candy to her in California, so now I don’t have to send it so far.
“His Facebook page, ‘I am Lava Man,’ I followed him on that and through Doug O’Neill Racing. I’m excited that Old Friends can take over and continue, which will be really cool for him and his fans.”
Complete with a Lava Man T-shirt that featured photos of him on the front and back, Diersen’s happiness at being in the cast’s presence was palpable.
Nancy Diersen with Lava Man
“He’s larger than life, so flamboyant, he knows where the camera is and he knows the camera is always on him,” she said. “He’s the ultimate coach… He’s so cool. It’s a bucket list to be able to see him, meet him and feed him a carrot.”
Making the trip from not so far away was Jessica Frindel, who arrived from Louisville. She said in the past she couldn’t get out to see certain horses before they passed.
“I think his whole story is that he was a racehorse and they kept him as a track pony … For him to do that at 21 years old is pretty impressive,” Frindel said. “He just got on Hot Rod Charlie at the Breeders’ Cup and they took him out here after that.
“I saw Einstein when he was here, and he wasn’t here long before he had to put him down, so it’s like, ‘let’s see him’… Some of the horses that he- I loved here they disappeared. now as War Emblem. I was a big fan of his.”
Despite officially retiring from both track careers, Lava Man will continue to serve a purpose in his new home where he will hopefully attract more visitors to the farm.
“It couldn’t have gone any better because his fans have seen him on the racetrack and now they get to see him here,” Blowen said. “It means a lot to us because we exist because of the visitors. Our financial foundation for this place is nothing but visitors. People who come to the farm and look around and think “I think this is a good idea, me.” I will donate.’ “
Lava Man with Michael Blowen and fans
Blowen also said Lava Man could be a push factor to develop another Old Friends in California.
“We got a call from a lady at Santa Anita who said they would be interested in doing an Old Friends, so maybe that will be a boost. He’s on the cover of the new California breeder’s magazine and there’s a reference that this big California-bred who did it all in California is going to Kentucky.
“The more places for more horses, the merrier. If he can lead that moment, that will be great. I’m not sending him back,” Blowen said with a chuckle.