LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – West Coast vs. East Coast. Blue-collar vs. blue blood. Old vs. young.

The story lines are clear when Lava Man goes against Bernardini in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. And after Barbaro’s career was cut short at the Preakness, it’s just the kind of duel horse racing desperately needs.

Set in Muhammad Ali’s hometown, the showdown is being hyped on a poster featuring tale-of-the-tape statistics for the two horses. On racing’s biggest day, Horse of the Year honors will be on the line when Lava Man and Bernardini meet in Saturday’s 1 1/4-mile race at Churchill Downs.

“We’re ready for him,” said Corey Nakatani, Lava Man’s jockey.

Most years, Lava Man’s accomplishments would make him the Classic’s wagering favorite, but he figures to be the second choice to Bernardini, winner of six in a row without a serious challenge.

Lava Man has gone his rival one better. He is 7-for-7 this year, and became the first horse to sweep California’s major dirt races in the same season, taking the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. Not bad for a 5-year-old gelding who was claimed for $50,000 in August 2004. Steve Kenly, a farmer and real estate developer from Phoenix, had spotted Lava Man in a race at Del Mar and told trainer Doug O’Neill to claim him.

“I have so many owners that aren’t your Hilton-family type of people,” O’Neill said. “We’ve made so many bad claims. It’s nice to go the other way every now and then.”

Lava Man has earned $3,804,706 for Kenly, his father, David, and Jason Wood of Orange County, Calif. This summer alone, he hauled in $2.7 million.

“We’re all just on cloud nine every time he runs,” Steve Kenly said. “I guarantee we’re all collectively a lot more nervous about this horse than we ever thought we’d be. Every race, it seems like the pressure builds.”

Lava Man hasn’t lost since the 2005 Japan Cup, when he finished 11th with foot problems. His seven-race winning streak began in January, when he won the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita.

“Lava Man certainly has the credentials,” said Tom Albertrani, Bernardini’s trainer. “We haven’t faced a horse like him yet.”

The knock on Lava Man, a humble son of Slew City Slew, is that he’s never won outside California, losing in Japan and at Belmont Park.

“A lot of East Coast people are skeptical of horses that come from California,” O’Neill said.

Adds Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Invasor, the likely third choice in the Classic: “You have to respect Lava Man even though he hasn’t done real well outside California. He might be a little better, a different horse this year. He’s done an awful lot of winning – a lot of 1’s by his name.”

If Lava Man wins the Classic, he would become only the second California-bred to win a Breeders’ Cup race. Tiznow captured the Classic in 2000, when he won Horse of the Year, and again the following year.

“We realize every time Lava Man goes to the post, we’re fulfilling a dream that a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to be part of, so we’re very blessed,” O’Neill said.

If Lava Man represents the average Joes, then Bernardini belongs to the blue bloods.

The 3-year-old colt is a well-bred son of A.P. Indy and owned by Dubai crown prince Sheik Mohammed’s Darley Stable. Bernardini has won at five tracks. Bernardini’s six-race winning streak includes brilliant performances in the Preakness, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

“Those are like Secretariat-type videos when you watch him run,” O’Neill said. “Those types of horses come around very rarely. He’s brought tons of excitement.”

Like a great heavyweight fight, Lava Man and Bernardini – oh, yeah, there are 12 other horses set to run in the Classic – will face scrutinized workouts and endless debate before they settle things under the Twin Spires.

“We’ll try to knock down another one,” Nakatani said.

AP-ES-10-30-06 1923EST

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