Doug O'Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winnner I'll… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
I like the guy, and that's before I hear about Armando Gonzalez and talk to Armando's brother, Ralph.
I've known horse trainer Doug O'Neill for years, not so well that he tips me off before I'll Have Another wins the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness.
But I know him, having to be tough at times, writing almost two years ago about accusations that he's a cheater, and Doug saying, "I swear on my kids' eyes I don't."
I know him as one of the most gregarious people you might ever meet, but today he's subdued, cautious and nothing like I remember.
Apparently the barbs have taken their toll, "Drug Doug" or "Drug O'Neill" maybe not as cutting to hear as it was in the beginning, but a gut shot nevertheless.
A few months ago he reaches the top of his profession with magical wins at Churchill and Pimlico, maybe a frayed tendon away from training the winner of the Triple Crown.
"You could have a horse get hurt in the past, and though you might be depressed, bummed out or feel sick to your stomach," he says, "you didn't have hundreds of people emailing to tell you what a puke you were."
His peers can be just as crass. Santa Anita passes out O'Neill Bobbleheads recently, another trainer asking O'Neill why the track has done so when O'Neill should've been kicked out of the profession.
Jealousy, of course, is as much a part of horse racing as a saddle, the sport eating its own and often wondering why it's dying.
O'Neill wins, and with great regularity, while seemingly always excited as if winning for the first time. It can be annoying if you are consistently the loser.
Those who know him rather than compete against him say he's all heart. So I tell him Peggy Mitchell is in the hospital and can use a boost because she's surrounded by family, including her son Houston, and O'Neill smiles.
"Lot of speed, will give you a thrill, but never going to go the distance," he says, and I didn't think he knew Houston.
"The horse," says O'Neill with a twinkle, "finished eighth in the 1989 Kentucky Derby." Hopefully Peggy smiles as well.
Call O'Neill and he's there. He signs autographs and visits sick kids. But instead of such spirit being embraced, often his sincerity is questioned.
It's one blow after the next, as good a guy as you will ever meet, and that's before I call Ralph Gonzalez.
Doug knew Ralph's brother Armando, the way you know so many people. Armando manned Gate 7 at Hollywood Park, just another employee on the back side, but a real character.
Armando liked to joke he was wearing O'Neill shoes, his way of letting O'Neill know he had cashed a winning ticket on one of O'Neill's horses.
One Christmas Eve morning a security guard at Hollywood Park accidentally ran a truck over Armando, leaving him a quadriplegic. Before anyone, including Ralph, Doug was a hospital visitor.
Doug knew of Armando's love for horse racing, so he paid to have a cable hookup so Armando could get the horse racing network. Later he would buy Armando a computer and a TV.
"A visit from Doug would carry my brother a long time," says Ralph.
Doug also knew about Armando's affection for Lava Man, so when the horse won, O'Neill held up a picture of Armando so Armando would be a part of the winner's circle photo.
"He's the only one from the track to visit my brother," says Ralph, "and he did so for six years. When my brother died last year he was the only one from the track to attend the funeral."
Doug says he had great affection for Armando, but doesn't say much more. It's not unusual. He keeps a lot to himself.
He struggles to talk about his brother Dan, who died 14 years ago. Doug is with his brother when a doctor says Dan should go home and get his affairs in order because he has six months to live.
"That's not what you want to hear," says Doug, as if hearing it again. "When I feel as if I've been battered, it's a trip to Disneyland compared to what was going on with Dan.''
Doug later loses his father to a heart attack, his brother Dennis beats cancer, and then when Doug climbs atop the horse racing world, there's widespread suspicion he cheated to get there.
"Maybe some of the things said aren't fair, but then losing my dad and my brother wasn't fair," he says. "Hey, I blame my parents. They named me Doug, which rhymes with drug. They could have named me Gene, you know like Clean Gene."
It's like a break in the weather, O'Neill loosening up after a 90-minute lunch that has the depressing weekday feel of a race track.
"I'm better, believe me," he says. "On a daily basis I'm better to be around. If you say I'm more guarded, I think I'm more guarded with my horses and that's good.
"I think I'm better off for everything that has happened. More mature. And no matter what's been said, it was such a thrill sharing the fun we had as a team in preparing I'll Have Another to run."
It's early, he says, but he has three possibilities for next year's Derby. And now, beyond winning, he wants to do whatever he can to promote the sport.
"I had this great mentor in Santa Monica College professor Arthur Verge, who was always telling me, 'See the good in everything.'
"I thought him nuts for years. But you know what, it's the way to live."