It was a year ago that trainer Doug O'Neill's fortunes began to turn, by a nose, at the Santa Anita Derby. He hopes to duplicate that magic this weekend.
His horse, I'll Have Another, edged the favorite, Creative Cause, to win the Santa Anita Derby in 2012. A month later I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby, for O'Neill's first victory in a Triple Crown race.
If anyone was happier last year than O'Neill after the Kentucky Derby, it was his then-9-year-old son, Daniel, who was promised a hot tub if O'Neill made it to the winner's circle.
"If we never get back again, we lived our dream," O'Neill said.
Daniel has enjoyed his dips in the hot tub, but his father has been busy plotting a return trip to Churchill Downs.
On Saturday, the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby will be run, and O'Neill has high hopes that his 3-year-old, Goldencents, can put himself on the same path taken by I'll Have Another, who also won the Preakness Stakes.
"April 6 is going to be a big day to tell us if we move forward or slow down," O'Neill said about Goldencents.
The 11/8-mile race Saturday will have eight entrants after the news broke Thursday that the second choice, Hear The Ghost, is expected to be scratched because of an injury. The race also will renew the rivalry between O'Neill and trainer Bob Baffert, whose Bodemeister finished second to I'll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Baffert will send out three horses Saturday — Power Broker, Super Ninety Nine and the 6-5 favorite, Flashback. His horses have won the Santa Anita Derby six times.
"To me, the Santa Anita Derby is the most exciting race we have here, because it's your ticket to the Kentucky Derby," Baffert said.
The local race offers 100 points to the winning horse, 40 to second place, 20 to third and 10 to fourth as part of a new system that awards points during a series of prep races toward earning one of the 20 starting spots in the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
Meanwhile, O'Neill is trying to guide Goldencents through a series of recent challenges and obstacles.
There are lots of story lines surrounding the horse. One of the co-owners is Louisville basketball Coach Rick Pitino, who will be busy coaching the Cardinals against Wichita State in the Final Four on Saturday in Atlanta.
Goldencents' jockey, 29-year-old Kevin Krigger, was born on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and is hoping to become the first African American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902. "I want to be able to make history," Krigger said.
Krigger has been racing for a decade and started to make a name for himself at Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area. Last year O'Neill almost put Krigger on I'll Have Another, but Mario Gutierrez got the mount instead.
And then there's O'Neill, a Santa Monica resident who a year ago was mostly known for winning some Breeders' Cup races but didn't have a national reputation — until he got to Churchill Downs.
Now he's seeking another shot at winning America's most prestigious race.
"It's addicting," O'Neill said about the Kentucky Derby. "You can see why certain connections circle that day on the calendar every year. It's just a tremendous experience. Everything is elevated, from the hot walkers to the grooms. Everyone gets a time to put their chests out, put their head high and really be proud what a beautiful sport it is."
Goldencents, a son of Into Mischief, has already earned $800,000 with three wins in five lifetime starts, with Krigger riding each time.
But Goldencents' last start, the San Felipe Stakes on March 9 at 11/16 miles at Santa Anita, raised some concerns. Goldencents engaged in a speed duel with Flashback until they reached the stretch. Then, Hear The Ghost came charging from fifth place to edge Flashback for a half-length victory while Goldencents faded to fourth.
Goldencents was listed at 6-1 odds for Saturday's race before the news that Hear The Ghost would be scratched. Goldencents is now listed at 9-2.
After the disappointing San Felipe, O'Neill decided to make a change in Goldencents' training, trying to slow him down in morning workouts. Goldencents frequently had fast workouts, running six furlongs in 1:10.40 and 1:11.60 before the San Felipe. But on March 21, Goldencents worked in 1:16. Then, on March 29, he worked in 1:14.
"A good horse you can probably train a million different ways," O'Neill said. "This horse has been running so well and working so fast. The other day, I just wasn't happy the way things unfolded.
"We've been taking him out different times in the morning. We've been trying to get him to slow down a little bit. I've never been a big believer in fast workouts. We say it all the time, 'There's no money in the morning.' Hopefully, we'll see better results come Santa Anita Derby day."
Besides gaining a hot tub, O'Neill said he picked up some new clients after his Kentucky Derby success. But most of all, he said, the experience validated his training beliefs.
"I have more confidence in what I do," he said.