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Wednesday, May 2, 2012
A wish come true


LOUISVILLE, KY -- She sat tall in the saddle, the girl we know simply as Hope. It had been a busy Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs, with visits to top Kentucky Derby contenders and conversations with leading trainers. But here was the highlight -- perching atop Lava Man outside Doug O'Neill's barn, the California trainer standing by.

"Have you ever sat on $5 million before?" O'Neill asked. The crowd of bystanders laughed as she shook her head, her smile growing wider while the champion racehorse stood stock-still.

Lava Man, winner of more than $5.2 million throughout his career, retired to become a stable pony for Team O'Neill. He chaperones horses to and from the track and acts as a mentor of sorts, experienced, teaching the younger runners what to do. Guests have been known to climb aboard his back to tour the shedrow, and when Case Clay of Three Chimneys Farm brought Hope by the barn -- a child enrolled with the Make a Wish Foundation -- there was no doubt in O'Neill's mind that she deserved to sit on the back of the one who once raced to multiple graded stakes victories.

"You can see people's eyes light up when they get around these beautiful animals," he said. "They're so big and powerful and yet they're so kind, and Lava Man is a perfect example. He's such a cool, giving horse, and it's great to share that with people."

This is the time of year when stakes are high and stress levels are higher, when every step heading into Saturday's race must be perfectly placed. Santa Anita Derby winner I'll Have Another would be leaving the barn in minutes for his morning gallop, three more days to go before the big one. But for a moment at Barn 3 there was only this -- a little girl who had a wish, a runner who fulfilled it, and people who took the time to care.

"You see the strength of a girl like Hope, it's unbelievable," O'Neill remarked. "And the smile -- it's incredible."

Lava Man stood still while Hope sat aboard, only flicking his ears when she reached down to pat his shoulder.

"When she got on Lava Man I could see her heart kind of pumping, she was smiling and loving it but it was a challenge at the same time," O'Neill said. "It was cool, I can't even explain the way it felt."

Hope is 11, facing a terminal illness. Her wish was to go to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. She loves horses -- she's obsessed with horses. Her favorite movie is the "Black Stallion," favorite toys are Breyers sculptures; if it's a horse, it's awesome. Her Derby pick is Hansen.

Tomorrow, she'll visit Three Chimneys for a chance to see Big Brown. Jen Roytz, the marketing director there, sits on the Make a Wish Foundation's board for the surrounding states and whenever a wish is horse-related, the Lexington farm helps make it come true. This weekend, it's a box at the Oaks and Derby. This weekend, it's pretty much whatever Hope wants to do.

"It meant so much," O'Neill said. "I told Case 'thank you' over and over for bringing her out. She gave me and the crew so much 'oomph,' just having her around, seeing how strong she is and what a fighter she is."

Lava Man is the man. He has a special connection with I'll Have Another, gets along very well with the son of Flower Alley.

"It's very special to have him around. And if horses talk to each other, he's got a lot to say," O'Neill said.

I'll Have Another drew a tough post, 19, at Wednesday's draw at Churchill Downs. O'Neill said he knows that isn't ideal, but being one of the last to load will give his horse less time to stand in the gate, and sitting outside all the speed will hopefully give him an opportunity to tuck into a good position.

"It's such a wide-open race this year; there's a lot of horses that deserve a lot of respect and I think we're one of them," he said. "Now we've just got to perform on Saturday. I'm very happy with where we are right now, but again, we've got to keep this going and have him ready to rock and roll."