Tom Knust, an agent for the likes of star jockeys Patrick Valenzuela and… (Larry Stewart / For The Times )
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As the Kentucky Derby approaches, consider Dennis O'Neill and Tom Knust as Twin Spires for racehorse Goldencents.
The backstretch barns at Churchill Downs were celebrity central Wednesday morning, led by the current biggest celebrity in town, Rick Pitino. He coached Louisville's basketball team to the NCAA title a month ago and now has a shot at an all-time strange daily double — NCAA and Kentucky Derby titles.
Pitino owns 5% of Goldencents, an investment of $3,100 made last summer at Del Mar when he heard about the horse and asked in on the action. Still, because celebrity currently outweighs significance in our star-struck society, the man much better versed in high posts than post positions was Wednesday's belle of the barns.
To his credit, he did his best to impart perspective to the media masses. "It's not like basketball," Pitino said. "You just don't know in the Derby."
Coming from a much closer vantage point, O'Neill and Knust think they know. O'Neill found the horse and bought it for his brother, trainer Doug O'Neill, and several of his owners. Then jockey agent Knust found the rider.
As Pitino fed the media mob, O'Neill and Knust stayed where they are most comfortable — in the shadows. Their stories are much better than celebrity sound bites, but who notices these days?
To begin, both are lucky to be alive.
O'Neill, 50, a bloodstock agent since the late 1990s, beat cancer. A week after his greatest career success, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had found Stevie Wonderboy and purchased the horse for Merv Griffin, and the thoroughbred had just won the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile before O'Neill got his cancer diagnosis.
"I went from highest high to lowest low," O'Neill said Wednesday morning.
Knust, 65, a longtime fixture in Southern California racing as an agent for the likes of Patrick Valenzuela and Kent Desormeaux — as well as racing secretary for Santa Anita, Oak Tree at Santa Anita, Del Mar and currently Fairplex — took a bullet to the head in Vietnam.
"We were ambushed," Knust said. "The bullet went through the helmet, my brain and out the back of my head. I was paralyzed on my right side."
It was 1967 and Knust was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do.
"I played football a couple years at Arcadia High," Knust said. "Thought I was invincible. I wanted to be a Marine and go to Vietnam. It was an adventure. It sounded good at the time."
More recently, O'Neill went through months of chemotherapy. He was fortunate. One of the drugs in the therapy directly attacked his strain of cancer.
"The first couple of sessions were fine," he said. "By the fourth session, I was knocked down. But I was lucky. They got it. That strain is more treatable than most."
With cancer survivors, the word "cure" is relative.
"I go back in every eight weeks," O'Neill said.
Knust's wounds were dressed on the battlefield. Then he was taken by helicopter to a holding area for victims, where priorities for further medical transportation were established. From a stretcher, he heard he would not be among the first transported.
"They said I would be a vegetable, anyway," Knust said.
O'Neill also found and bought last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another. That was at an April auction in Ocala, Fla. He also found Goldencents at Ocala, but that was last June. Auctions that late usually feature horses previously passed over or injured. It is less likely to find a Triple Crown-caliber horse there.
"I was crazy about Goldencents right away," O'Neill said. "I have three criteria: Good performance when they breeze; the horse has to look good; and a decent pedigree. If it has a great pedigree, I'm dead, because I won't be able to afford him. [Bob] Baffert will be putting out $300,000 to $400,000."
O'Neill had the closing bid of $55,000, but the auctioneer said he had missed a bid in the back. O'Neill, already $5,000 over his ceiling, was upset when the bid was reopened and moving up again. But he stayed and got Goldencents for $62,500.
Knust was upset too when his jockey, the meteoric and unpredictable Valenzuela, was injured and out of action. Knust liked what he saw in a Northern California jockey, and he talked Kevin Krigger into moving south.
"We worked horses for just about any trainer who asked. Most of the horses, we never even knew their names," Knust said. "Kevin was always there, always willing. We worked a lot for Doug, and Kevin only asked me once to ask for a specific ride. That was Goldencents."
When O'Neill was diagnosed, he wanted the best treatment and was told that was at USC. When he couldn't get in, he called his friend, Knust, who was writing a book about Public Storage billionaire B. Wayne Hughes, a big USC benefactor. Knust made the call and O'Neill was getting treatment at USC the next day.
"Thank God for Tom," O'Neill said.
The entire Goldencents team would echo that. Thank God for Tom and Dennis.