ARCADIA, Calif. (Dec. 27, 2009) – Lava Man faded to last with blood spattered on both rear hooves after leading six rivals for nearly one mile of his comeback attempt before defending champion Proudinsky closed determinedly to win Sunday’s Grade II, $150,000 San Gabriel Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf at Santa Anita.

The 63rd running of the San Gabriel marked the first start in 17 months for the 8-year-old gelding widely acclaimed as the greatest claim purchase in racing history. His return was engendered by a radical series of stem cell procedures to regenerate cartilage in surgically repaired ankles.

The popular California-bred earner of over $5.2 million, who was claimed for $50,000 in 2004, seemed to be running comfortably after assuming command immediately under Tyler Baze in his attempt to halt a six-race losing streak dating to June of 2007.

But once the seven runners turned into the stretch, Lava Man, his lack of recent racing reflected by his 5-1 odds, began to drop back, grudgingly at first, and then steadily until crossing the wire one-half length behind sixth place Sir Dave.

“He had a gash on his hind right tibia when he came back,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, “but I don’t think that caused anything. It looks like he hit the side of the gate leaving there. He just got tired. That’s what Tyler (Baze) commented on.”

Proudinsky, meanwhile, became the fourth two-time winner of the San Gabriel while defeating 6-5 favored Loup Breton by a neck. Acclimation checked in third, 1 ¼ lengths behind the runner-up. The winning time was 1:46.91 after Lava Man had negotiated the mile in 1:35.22.

Trained by Humberto Ascanio since the November passing of Ascanio’s boss, Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, Proudinsky was ridden by Rafael Bejarano and sent off as the second choice at odds of 9-5.

“Good horses do the job,” said Ascanio. “I learned from the Bobby Frankel school. I’m not Bobby Frankel, but I just do his thing. I knew (trainer) Julio Canani’s horse (Loup Breton) was going to come running at the end, but I was real confident.”

Said Bejarano, “At the top of the stretch, I asked my horse and he gave me a good turn of foot. I could see the seven (Loup Breton) was really running on the rail, but my horse was running faster, and they couldn’t catch him.”

Proudinsky, second to Dayton in the 2007 San Gabriel prior to his two victories, earned $90,000 for his latest triumph. The purse brought the six-year-old German-bred’s career earnings to $1,195,953 from a record of 7-4-2 in 22 career starts for owner Johanna Glen-Teven.

O’Neill was clearly disappointed by the showing of Lava Man. “I thought I had him more fit than that,” he said, “but it’s hard to simulate a mile and an eighth turf race in the mornings. When Tyler asked him to kick on, he said he gave him something, but he just couldn’t sustain it.

“I’m bummed, yeah. I was very eager to see him run today because he had been training like the Lava Man of old, and again, he really never had much of a layoff during the whole three-year campaign that we had him on, so it was kind of new thing to see.

“He definitely disappointed me in his results, but he really made me happy with the fact that he got back here and I thought he looked great striding out. Tyler, the last eighth of a mile just kind of took care of him. He didn’t get after him once he knew he wasn’t going to be in the top five. So he just wrapped up on him.”

O’Neill said he would confer with owners Steve, Tracy and Dave Kenly, and Jason Wood as well as Dr. Doug Herthel before a decision is rendered on the future of Lava Man. “We’ll just see what’s the right thing for Lava Man,” he said.

At 3-1 the fourth choice in a field of six 2-year-old fillies, Evening Jewel rallied along the inside to capture the earlier female division of the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes by three-quarters-of-a-length over Warren’s Jitterbug. With Victor Espinoza at the controls, Evening Jewel covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.78.

The daughter of Northern Afleet, who is trained by James Cassidy, won her first stakes event while racing beyond 6 ½ furlongs for the first time in five starts. “I always thought she’d stretch out,” said Cassidy, “and I think she’ll get better yet on grass.”

Evening Jewel tracked a leisurely pace set by Camille C, passed the leader entering the stretch and safely held off Warren’s Jitterbug and jockey Garrett Gomez. West Rule, the favorite and one of three entrants sent off at odds of 5-2, finished third, a head behind the runner-up. “I like the way she ran,” Espinoza said of the winner. “I worked her the other day and I knew she was ready. She worked unbelievable and she ran the same way today.”

Evening Jewel paid $8.40, $4.60 and $3. Warren’s Jitterbug returned $7.20 and $4 while the show price on West Ruler, with Rafael Bejarano in the saddle, was $3.

The winning purse of $60,000 increased the victorious bay filly’s earnings to $100,600 from a 2-2-0 record in five races for owners Tom and Marilyn Braly.

Santa Anita will present a rare Monday card of racing to begin the coming week with the eight-race program headed by the $65,000 Eddie Logan Stakes for 2-year-olds at one mile on turf. First post is at 1 p.m. Following a dark day on Tuesday, the week will conclude with a normal Wednesday through Sunday schedule.