PREAKNESS 2013

Fun-loving Team O'Neill experiencing a 'different vibe' at this year's Preakness

Trainer Doug O'Neill was the talk of the town with I'll Have Another, but an underdog with Goldencents

Training Doug O'Neill talked about his horse, Goldencents who's running in the Preakness Stakes. (Baltimore Sun video)

The one-liners never stop when you're around Team O'Neill. Sometimes all that's missing is a brick wall, a stool and a microphone stand.

Take the other day, for instance.

Jockey Kevin Krigger has Goldencents out for his regular morning gallop in preparation for Saturday's Preakness. Trainer Doug O'Neill and his crew are watching it from the press box high atop Pimlico Race Course.

As Krigger walks the Santa Anita Derby winner onto the track, the jockey looks up and waves.

"Don't mess it up!" co-owner Dave Kenney cries out.

"Dave does motivational speaking," O'Neill quips immediately.

"Yeah, he's another Tony Roberts," someone else says, and now everyone's cracking up as Krigger and the horse disappear from view.

The jokes, put-downs and zingers go on for the next 15 minutes as Goldencents churns around the track. When the gallop is over and the horse is being cooled down, Krigger smiles when asked what it's like to be around this rolling sitcom on an everyday basis.

"Team O'Neill, I would step out of the box and say it's a unique team to work with," Krigger says in the soft accent of his native St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "You don't find many outfits as hilarious, as down-to-earth and as relaxed as these guys. ... It's like a comedy show every day.

"At the same time, they're running an outfit, so everything is being done the way it should be done. But we enjoy doing it and we have fun doing it."

The alternately loose-yet-businesslike atmosphere is a testament to the 44-year-old O'Neill, who comes to the Preakness with considerably less fanfare than he did last year.

Last year he was the talk of the town when he arrived with Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another.

O'Neill seemed to bask in all the attention. He and his crew had a blast as they took in the sights, partied at different restaurants and took in an Orioles-Yankees game, where O'Neill threw out the first pitch. Then I'll Have Another went out and won the Preakness, surging past Bodemeister at the wire to win by a neck.

The hype about a possible Triple Crown was everywhere, and O'Neill's national profile sky-rocketed. Then came the crushing blow of a lifetime, when I'll Have Another was injured right before the Belmont Stakes and had to be scratched.

How often does O'Neill think about that horrible turn of events?

"All the time," he says with a nod. "All the time. We celebrate his great run all the time. It's why we're in the game, to have a horse like him. To come so close to being a Triple Crown horse was an unbelievable feeling. He's definitely in our thoughts a lot. He gave a lot to us."

This year, with Goldencents, O'Neill says he's the hunter rather than the hunted going into Saturday's big race. The spotlight is squarely on Orb, the Derby winner and Preakness favorite. And the laid-back O'Neill seems fine with that, too.

"It is a different vibe," the Michigan native says. "But it's a great vibe. Management's so good to all of us and they just bend over backward to make all of us feel at home. Just being back here, I feel so lucky. And a similar vibe is, we feel we have a good chance to win again."

Well, maybe.

Goldencents is an 8-1 shot and will break out of the No. 2 gate, directly to the right of Orb in the dreaded No. 1 post. But O'Neill's horse didn't have a great run in the Derby, to say the least.

 

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