As I'll Have Another walked the shedrow the morning after winning the Kentucky Derby, the horse in the first stall of trainer Doug O'Neill's Barn 3 at Churchill Downs repeatedly tossed his head about as if trying to get the attention of the media crowd that had gathered.
With more than $5.2 million in earnings and seven Grade I wins in a career that spanned six seasons, getting some love was never a problem for the venerable Lava Man.
Though the 11-year-old gelding is done competing on the track, he is once again a popular presence on some of racing's top days.
Since being retired from racing after a brief comeback attempt in late 2009, Lava Man has gone from the lead on-track performer for O'Neill to the lead pony for the barn he helped put on the map. Though the son of Slew City Slew didn't blossom into a top runner until well past his 3-year-old season, he can now list a Kentucky Derby on his résumé in some respect, as it was his still-fit dark bay frame leading I'll Have Another from the barn to the track for his Derby triumph on May 5.
Never miss a local story.
His connections mulled having Lava Man simply live the life of Riley at a retirement facility once his racing days were over, but it soon became clear the gelding with enduring grit on the track was happiest still doing a job.
In his second career as a lead pony, Lava Man has taken on a bit of a mentor's role in O'Neill's eyes. Where he used to be more the high-strung type during his running days, Lava Man has become a positive influence to those he leads to the track.
"It's awesome. I have to thank his owners who were kind enough to let us keep him," O'Neill said. "He's just been a wonderful pony. He's a happy horse, he's a healthy horse and if horses talk, what a great coach to have on your team.
"He's got a lot of energy and when he has someone on his back, he's so much more relaxed and happy that way. He's only 11 still and we really thought he would be happier and helpful here."
Having a disposition that is pretty much bomb-proof is among the requirements for any pony. Especially among larger training outfits, stamina is important if a pony is to remain for the long haul.
"They've got to get along with the horses for one thing. You don't want them kicking or biting, anything like that," said Jim Barnes, longtime assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has been using the friendly, bespeckled pony Cowboy for the past six years or so. "Cowboy is very gentle and has a good attitude. He loves to work. ... We have so many horses to train and you can ride him all day long."
Lava Man's athletic ability made him a natural fit, but his mellow nature has also made him an ambassador for the sport.
When 12-year-old Hope Hudson arrived on the Churchill Downs backstretch Derby week thanks to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the sight of her beaming face as O'Neill hoisted her atop Lava Man rivaled race photos as the week's most indelible image.
"He is such a cool, giving horse and it is fun to share that," O'Neill said. "It's very special to have him around. We're absolutely blessed to be with him every day and work with him every day."
Daddy Nose Best confirmed for Preakness
Daddy Nose Best will ship from Churchill Downs to Pimlico to run in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, owner Bob Zollars confirmed Tuesday.
Daddy Nose Best, 10th in the Kentucky Derby, walked the shedrow Tuesday at trainer Steve Asmussen's barn a day after working a half-mile in :53 over a sloppy track.
The son of Scat Daddy has won four of 11 starts, including the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby on March 25.