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BILL DWYRE

Doug O'Neill is man of the moment after I'll Have Another's Derby win

The trainer returns to barn at Hollywood Park and is surrounded by friends and colleagues. He knows the odds are long but doesn't shy away from the subject of possible Triple Crown.

May 07, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Trainer Doug O'Neill was a media darling on Sunday, a day after I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Doug O'Neill was a media darling on Sunday, a day after I'll… (Garry Jones / Associated…)

Seldom has a horse been better named for taking the second step in pursuit of racing's Triple Crown than I'll Have Another.

Doug O'Neill's Kentucky Derby champion has already moved in at Pimlico in Baltimore, site of the May 19 Preakness, and O'Neill applies simple logic to the unusually early arrival.

"We really didn't have any opinion on the surfaces at either Churchill Downs or Pimlico," he said, "so we just decided to get him settled in at Pimlico."

O'Neill was back at Hollywood Park on Monday morning. I'll Have Another is just one of the 75 horses he trains, so duty called. Actually, calling a Kentucky Derby champion just one of any grouping falls well short of the deserved hyperbole. O'Neill calls him: "Our Kobe — an ice-veined horse."

It was less than 48 hours after O'Neill had achieved the biggest success of his professional life, yet his barn at Hollywood Park, home of I'll Have Another, was devoid of the media glare one might expect after a Kentucky Derby victory.

A handful of close friends and associates stood around, laughing, joking and savoring the moment, while making sure O'Neill's head did not outgrow his hat size. His longtime friend Mark Verge, now a top executive at Santa Anita, said O'Neill's nickname was "Wheels" because he was so slow of foot as a high school athlete. Fellow trainer Eddie Freeman, who got the first celebratory hug Saturday at Churchill Downs, complained he was still suffering face burns from O'Neill's beard.

They weren't exactly a bunch of frat boys, but close.

For his part, O'Neill took it all in, dished it right back and loved every minute of it. He is more comfortable there, in boots, blue jeans and his Detroit Tigers cap, than he is in coat and tie and silk napkin on his lap at a racetrack Director's Room.

He will turn 44 five days after the Preakness. He moved with his family from Dearborn, Mich., to Southern California in the late 1970s, attended St. Monica's High in Santa Monica and has never strayed far. Asked whether he lives north of Montana Avenue, where the houses are fancier and the status is bigger in Santa Monica, O'Neill laughed.

"No, not likely," he said. "We're around Ocean Park and 30th. We've been there seven years and really like it."

The house he shares with his wife, Linette, Daniel, 9, and Caylin, 7, doesn't have a yard big enough for the swimming pool the kids want, so he promised them he would have a hot tub put in if he won the Kentucky Derby.

"I figured I was safe," he said.

After jockey Mario Gutierrez booted home I'll Have Another, a reporter found Daniel in the celebrating group and got the first response from the winning trainer's son.

"Hot tub, baby," Daniel said.

Among the questions O'Neill is frequently asked are: Did you ever win the Kentucky Derby, and where did you go to college? He can now answer (1) yes; (2) the University of Del Mar.

His family loved to go to the races, especially his dad, the late Patrick O'Neill, and brothers David, Danny and Dennis. Mom Dixie is 73. Danny died from cancer, David lives in Hawaii and Dennis is Doug's trusted aide, who found I'll Have Another for owner J. Paul Reddam and purchased him for a paltry $35,000.

"None of us had any connection to anything or anybody on the backside [the barns]," O'Neill said, "but we were great fans. And those were the days when you would go to Santa Anita and there would be 50,000 people."

O'Neill finished high school, asked for some help in getting into the race game and got it from high school teacher and coach Mike Amodie, who sent him to a trainer at Del Mar, Jude Feld.

"I loved it," O'Neil said. "I did everything and I couldn't wait to go home for the weekend after the first week so I could tell everybody about how neat it was. Then they broke it to me. This job was seven days a week."

Now, after more than 25 years of seven-day weeks, O'Neill is the man of the moment in horse racing. His sport has lusted after a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed last achieved that in 1978, and it will root heavily for him. O'Neill knows that, knows the long odds and still doesn't shy away from the subject, like some baseball announcers calling a no-hitter.

"I've thought about it," he said. "He's got the stuff. I don't worry about the Belmont's distance [a mile and a half], because he can run all day. You saw how he galloped out after going a mile and a quarter in the Derby in around 2:02."

Then, there is O'Neill's not-so-secret weapon, the escort who takes I'll Have Another to the races.

When the horses leave the paddock and get to the track, there are still about 15 minutes of parade time before they load into the starting gate. Each is joined by another horse during the parade time. Taking I'll Have Another to the gate for the Preakness, as he did for the Kentucky Derby, will be O'Neill's previously most famous horse, Lava Man, the gelding who won more than $5 million.

"If horses talk, and we think they do," O'Neill said, "then there couldn't be anyone better to lead him out. It's like having Arnold Palmer as your caddie."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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