O’Neill could have power of numbers

first_img“It is truly unbelievable,” he said of Lava Man’s matching John Henry’s 1982 Santa Anita Handicap repeat, which a 13-year-old O’Neill watched from the Santa Anita infield after riding three buses from his family’s Santa Monica home. What a story. As the O’Neill-Lava Man legend grows, though, the state’s leading trainer is working on a second story he finds no less charming even though it violates the one-horse rule. O’Neill is shooting for the Kentucky Derby with not one, not two, but three outstanding young colts. And it might even turn out to be four. If O’Neill shows up at Churchill Downs on May 5 with a threesome or more, he’ll jump out of the storybooks and into the volumes that define stardom for modern thoroughbred trainers. Think of Silent Tom Smith and Seabiscuit, Sam Rubin and Ron McAnally and John Henry, Roy and Gretchen Jackson and Barbaro. Doug O’Neill found his one horse when he put in a $50,000 bargain claim three summers ago for Lava Man, the wonder gelding who labored to win the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap for the second year in a row in front of 43,024 fans Saturday and run his winning streak in California to nine races. ARCADIA The sweetest racetrack stories link a man and a horse. Or a couple of men and a horse. Or a man and a woman and a horse. The key is, in classic tales of the turf, it’s always one horse at a time. center_img There may be poetry in the mute connection between a horseman and his animal, but there’s power in numbers. An hour before Lava Man and jockey Corey Nakatani won the Big ‘Cap, an O’Neill-trained colt named Great Hunter rallied with Nakatani to win the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in the opener of his Kentucky Derby prep campaign. Great Hunter became O’Neill’s second 3-year-old stakes winner of the season. Notional won the Risen Star Stakes in Louisiana last month. And there could be another very soon. Liquidity goes to the Louisiana Derby next weekend after agonizing seconds to a pair of big Derby prospects at Santa Anita. The fourth O’Neill possibility is Merv Griffin-owned Cobalt Blue, who’ll try to earn a place setting at the barn’s Triple Crown training table when he runs in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in a couple of weeks. “This is really our first attempt at the Derby,” O’Neill, whose dreams of Kentucky a year ago ended when Griffin’s Stevie Wonderboy got hurt, said earlier this week at Santa Anita. “I’m blessed to have three or four 3-year-olds who, just on numbers, have run some of the fastest races this year. Unlike a horse like Lava Man (a reliable 6-year-old), you just don’t know how they’re going to develop and how they’re going to handle the campaign. So far, so good.” Suddenly, thanks to owner J.Paul Reddam (the Ditech.com and CashCall loans mogul from Laguna Beach) and a crack barn crew headed by his brother Dennis, Doug O’Neill is in a league with D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito, Derby-winning trainers known for their multihorse assaults on Louisville, and Todd Pletcher, who has a bunch of candidates to end his Derby oh-fer this spring. Only Lukas has actually won a Derby (Grindstone’s, in 1996) in which he had three or more starters. As charmless as this approach might sound, trying to win a Derby with an army could be a harder test for a trainer than banking on one horse. In part because the well-seasoned Great Hunter (by Aptitude), the light-framed California-bred Notional (In Excess) and the massive Liquidity (Tiznow) all are owned by Reddam, the O’Neill brothers have contrived to keep them from racing against each other in the preps. Great Hunter is supposed to run next in Lexington in the April 14 Blue Grass Stakes, Notional in the March 31 Florida Derby, Liquidity in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby (after which Liquidity would come home for the April 7 Santa Anita Derby). “Everybody’s got different theories about how to win the Derby,” Reddam joked in the Santa Anita winner’s circle Saturday, “so we’ll prep one five weeks out, one four weeks out and one three weeks out.” There’s method to O’Neill’s map work. You might think it stresses a horse, all this jetting around for the good of the team, but the 38-year-old trainer isn’t worried. “I think it’s good for a horse to get a little experience on the road, then come back here and freshen up,” O’Neill said a few days ago. “The (plan) we talked about at the end of last year is coming together. Keeping them away from each other, getting them some experience on the road, and having fresh legs coming up to the Derby. Knock on wood.” The Kentucky Derby chase looks as wide open as it ever has been at this stage, thanks to an upset in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth in Florida, where Nobiz Like Shobiz ran an erratic third to Scat Daddy and California-based Stormello. I’m putting 2-year-old champ Street Sense back on top of the rankings by default, and my top 10 includes three O’Neills and four Pletchers (Ravel, Scat Daddy, Any Given Saturday, and Circular Quay). It often goes like this for a good horse trainer. One big horse makes him famous, then more and more big horses flood in. In all Saturday, O’Neill saddled four winners at Santa Anita, one of which paid $64.60. Around mid-afternoon, somebody pointed out that he’d also saddled a half-dozen losers. “Where’s a bartender?” O’Neill replied, mock-upset. Good thing he was kidding. He’ll need his wits about him in the next two months as the complicated part of the O’Neill plot unfolds. Kevin Modesti’s column appears in the Daily News three days a week. [email protected] (818) 713-3616 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more

Read more