Team O'Neill — as Kentucky Derby winner Doug O'Neill and his group of assistants and grooms are called — rises early, like all horsemen. In Baltimore, where the crew is preparing I'll Have Another to run in the 137th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, the trainer and his team have been together almost every minute of every day. They rented a house in Canton, off Boston Street. O'Neill likes to tell you how lucky he is to work in a job that so excites him he "wakes up without an alarm." And so, with the dark of another Baltimore night dissipating over the harbor, he and his crew have prepared quietly before making the drive to Pimlico.
Once there, one of them breaks the silence with an improvised line.
"Lately, we've been singing a lot about the big horse," assistant trainer Jack Sisterson says, nodding toward I'll Have Another. "You just start with him, and we go. And that's why we've done what we've done. We have fun."
O'Neill, 43, has been saddling horses since the late 1980s out of his California base. His horses earned more than $10 million in 2006 and 2007, but his chase for the first Triple Crown since 1978 has delivered him, for the first time, to a national audience.
Witty and self-effacing, O'Neill wears canvas shoes, not Cowboy boots. On rainy days this week he donned a dark trench coat over his T-shirt, hunching his shoulders against the storms and waiving people under the protective roof of Barn D. Shortly after arriving, he asked Pimlico vice president Mike Gathagan about hospitals and rec centers he could visit. In a sport fighting to regain even a smidgen of the popularity it once knew, O'Neill appears to be the rare personality who could give fans a long-term rooting interest.
He could also become the symbol for what is wrong with horse racing.
O'Neill is facing a suspension of up to 180 days and a fine of $15,000 for an incident in which one of his horses tested positive for high levels of total carbon dioxide (the suspension would not affect any of the Triple Crown races). The common theory among horse racing regulators is that such a test indicates the horse had been given a "milkshake" — an illegal combination of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes that reduces the build up of lactic acid in a horse's muscles, allowing it to run harder and longer.
O'Neill vigorously defends his record. He swore on his children's eyes one day and to God the next that he'd never milkshaked a horse. He says he's spent $250,000 fighting the latest charge — he had a hearing in the fall, and his case could be settled in an executive session of the California Horse Racing Board next week — after paying fines three other times. At that point in his career, he said, it would have been too costly to fight the battle.
His brother, Dennis, said O'Neill is convinced other factors — possibly the anti-bleeding drug Lasix — could lead to increased TCO2 levels, and O'Neill has repeatedly invited the media to a discussion of the incident once it has been fully adjudicated.
"Come on out to California once all this is over," he said early this week. "When I can, I will explain it all."
From gambler to trainer
Mark Verge, an entrepreneur and author and recently-named CEO of the Santa Anita race track, happened to befriend a young Doug O'Neill at football sign-ups in 1980 because they shared the same birthday. He remembers his first trip to the track with O'Neill.
The date was March 22, 1981. They went with a teacher and basketball coach, Mike Amodei, who only sheepishly admits to placing bets for the teenagers, who hit an exacta on the ninth race and were hooked, splitting less than $200 between them.
O'Neill and Verge would do this for the rest of their school-aged years. Often, they took buses and enticed friends to go along. One, in particular, placed outrageous $10 bets and began weeping on the ride home. He'd taken money meant for a fundraiser and blown it all.
When meets moved far away and tickets would have cost $24 to reach the track, O'Neill and Verge — who funded some of their bets by selling avocados — found men headed that way and asked them to place their bets. Then they waited for the return. Dennis, several years older than Doug and Mark, remembers helping them cut classes to get out to the races.
O'Neill's father was a gambler and had taken Dennis with him to tracks in Michigan. Patrick O'Neill retired from the phone company and moved his family to California, where jobs were available and tracks were plenty.
Doug O'Neill knew at a young age that he wanted to go into the horse game. He thought briefly about accounting.
"I'm glad that didn't work out," he said. He worked as an independent contractor for the family's phone company, but that lasted six months.