O’Neill is getting all of it, the praise and the scrutiny.
“You win the big one and then people want to kind of go after you,” O’Neill said.
Anybody who has spent any time with O’Neill, 43, knows him to be one of the most genuine people in the sport. His record, however, is his record.
Like many trainers who deal in volume and play the claiming game, O’Neill’s list of violations is not short. Three times, he has been accused of “milkshaking” horses. A “milkshake” is a combination of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes that are sent down a tube stuffed into a horse’s nose. It is thought to keep a horse from getting tired during a race. O’Neill said he never did it.
“This particular horse has been through every possible physical exam, blood exams, urine exams,” O’Neill said of I’ll Have Another “I mean, they’ve done everything but pick him up by the hooves and shake his ears.”
Obviously, the trainer would prefer to talk about the Derby and the Preakness.
“I would love to sit down when everything calms down and address all the stuff from the past,” O’Neill said. “For right now we’re just pumped and excited about the Preakness.”
The reality is this: Despite all the recent focus on drugs in horse racing (and it is absolutely a problem), it is not the problem it almost certainly was 30 or 40 years when testing either did not exist or was ineffective. Back then, it was the Wild West where, if you weren’t cheating, you weren’t trying. Now, in an era of legal medication and fragile horses, along with rules that change state to state and far-too-lenient penalties that almost never fit the violation, clueless politicians are shrieking and Derby-winning trainers are obvious targets.
“I think with all that previous stuff, I think I’m going to come out on the good end there, hopefully, we can kick some butt in the Preakness and kick some butt in the Belmont and after that we can sit down and talk about all that,” O’Neill said.
Whatever did happen in the past, I’ll Have Another did win the Derby. So did O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez and owner Paul Reddam.
O’Neill was a racing fan living in Santa Monica when he went to the track right out of high school. He worked for several Southern California trainers “just shutting up and keeping your eyes open and your ears open.” He checked out how Hall of Famers like Charlie Whittingham, Dick Mandella, Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert did it.
He learned his lessons well. In his second try at the Derby, that was I’ll Have Another passing by the Baffert-trained Bodemeister with 100 yards to go.
I’ll Have Another has an eclectic trifecta behind him. The owner was a philosophy professor who once groomed harness horses in his native Canada. Reddam showed up at Santa Anita in 1980 as the great Spectacular Bid was starting one of the great 4-year-old campaigns in racing history. He was hooked.
And when NBC’s Bob Costas asked him in the Derby winner’s circle which of the great philosophers summed up a day like this best, Reddam was ready, citing Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher who died in 1951 and once said: “After all philosophical problems are solved, nothing of importance will have been accomplished so we got into horse racing.”
The horse racing part was Reddam’s addendum, but it makes perfect sense in a sport where hardly anything makes sense.
“The Doug O’Neill team is a lot of fun,” Reddam said. “The whole group tries to remember that racing is supposed to be fun first … We’re kind of a working-class group, from the trainer, the owner, the jockey. We don’t come from the bluest of blood for horse racing, and that’s OK. The horse matches that absolutely completely.”
Thirteen months ago, I’ll Have Another was purchased by O’Neill’s brother, Dennis, for $35,000.
I’ll Have Another is the first Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Derby since Sunday Silence in 1989. He was 15-1 on May 5. Won’t be that Saturday, but likely won’t be favored, either.
“I think he was such a price because of me training it and Mario riding it,” O’Neill said after the Derby. “If it would have been a [Todd] Pletcher or [John] Velazquez, I bet you it would have been 9-2. How do you win the Santa Anita Derby and not be one of the top five choices?”
Reddam rented a house in Louisville for his entire crew. He is doing the same in Baltimore. They are all staying in an Inner Harbor townhouse.
“The biggest thing about Doug and the crew is that he’s a lot of fun and he’s not afraid to talk about things, to listen,” Reddam said. “It’s not his way or the highway. Sometimes, if anything, he might take too much input from his owners, including me.”
By the way, the crew did not have to bet Derby Day. They got down at 200-1. A few days before I’ll Have Another made his 2012 debut at Santa Anita, a race book just across the Nevada border about 200 miles from the track took so many significant bets the odds were lowered four times.
The rider threw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game last week. He went back to Hastings Park in Vancouver Sunday. It was that track where he dominated for years, but he was a complete unknown when he decided to spend his winter at Santa Anita. He had won exactly 14 races in 2012 when he delivered a perfect ride in the Derby.
Gutierrez grew up around horses in Mexico. His father rode quarter horses. He did not seem at all fazed by the moment. Nor does he seem concerned about his first visit to Pimlico.
“All the tracks are the same,” he said. “They have dirt on it and they’re a circle.”
Hard to argue with the kind of logic the great Wittgenstein would understand.
Breaking with recent tradition, O’Neill brought I’ll Have Another to Baltimore early, just 2 days after the Derby. Instead of being housed in Stall 40, typically reserved for the Derby winner, I’ll Have Another is in Barn D, Stall 17, just across a gravel lot.
“I am going to stay up here as long as we can,” O’Neill said of the whirlwind. “I don’t want it to end. If I could push the button to slow it down, I would have.” n
Contact Dick Jerardi at email@example.com