Apparently, trainer Doug O'Neill has taken the name of his most famous horse literally. Saturday, he decided, I'll Have Another.
So, here we go again. If race fans have that feeling of "Groundhog Day," nobody could blame them. The O'Neill Show, a smash hit a year ago, will be a repeat headliner on horse racing's most prestigious stage, the Kentucky Derby.
That was achieved in front of 33,005, when O'Neill's Goldencents won the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, one of the prestigious prep races for the sport's most prestigious race. This was supposed to be Bob Baffert Day, but the famed silver-haired trainer with three entries in the eight-horse field, including overwhelming favorite Flashback, had to settle for a second (Flashback) and a third (Super Ninety Nine).
Last year's Kentucky Derby was won by O'Neill's I'll Have Another. Baffert's Bodemeister was second.
Last year's Preakness was won by I'll Have Another. Bodemeister was second.
Last year's Belmont was a real chance for the long-awaited Triple Crown, before I'll Have Another came up with an injury the day before the race, which was won by Union Rags. Baffert's Paynter was second.
So come May 5 in Louisville, assuming Baffert still has Flashback running, the story lines will have a familiar ring.
As O'Neill did a year ago with Mario Gutierrez, he will have another unheralded jockey aboard in his run for the roses. Kevin Krigger, who toiled for more than a decade in the thoroughbred outback of Northern California, will get the Team O'Neill spotlight this time. Saturday, Krigger kept a nice hold on Goldencents as Super Ninety Nine dashed to the lead and, perhaps, tried to run Goldencents dry for the expected late run of Flashback. But when Garrett Gomez asked Flashback for the whole deal at the head of the stretch, he got about 60%. Krigger and Goldencents shrugged off the challenge and crossed a length and a quarter ahead.
"All credit to Kevin Krigger," O'Neill said.
Were Krigger, a native of the Virgin Islands, to win in Louisville, he would become the first African American jockey to win a Kentucky Derby since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902. Records were inconclusive as to whether Baffert finished second that year too.
O'Neill's brother, Dennis, was responsible for finding I'll Have another for owner J. Paul Reddam. He was also responsible for finding Goldencents and putting together an ownership group that includes Glenn Sorgenstein and Joshua Kaplan of Santa Monica and David Kenney of Yorba Linda. Eventually, one of the group gave up 5% of his ownership to a guy named Rick Pitino, who also had a pretty good day elsewhere Saturday. The Louisville basketball team he coaches won its way into college basketball's title game.
As for O'Neill, the man few in national horse racing circles knew before his Triple Crown run last year, little has changed. Despite being besieged by media questions about his alleged past involvement in "milkshaking" horses — possibly enhancing a horse's performance by administering sodium bicarbonate — O'Neil retained a sense of humor throughout that made him a challenger to Baffert as racing's king of the one-liners.
Clearly, in preparation for Saturday's race, he had worked on his ad-libs.
—Had he taken personally a new 72-hour surveillance program put in place for this race? "I wondered a little when they followed me into the bathroom."
—Would, this time, he vary from the wide-open, pour-his-heart-out, answer-every-question-from- every-reporter-no-matter-how-long-it-took approach? "No comment."
—What is the occupation of one of his owners? "Male prostitute."
—What is his relationship with his famous owner, Pitino? "We are tight, real tight. I call him on the phone and he says, 'Doug who?' "
—On his strategy to retain his jockey, Krigger, after a controversial ride in the previous Derby prep, while Baffert changed riders. "I always do the opposite of what Bob does."
—Will the balding O'Neill keep growing his beard for the Triple Crown run? "Of course. Rubbing Rogaine on the chin really helps."
So, in about a month, Team O'Neill will be descending on the twin spires of Churchill Downs, and if the scene in Saturday's winner's circle was any indication, things could be wild. There appeared to be about 250 of O'Neill's closest friends — OK, 249 and Mayor Villaraigosa — whooping it up. It was racing's version of the ball dropping on New Year's Eve.
If everybody trying to get into the picture actually had a piece of the horse, the split for each would have come to about 88 cents.
But each, of course, would have considered every penny golden cents.