The preparation was over.
It was 5:15 a.m. Saturday morning when Doug O’Neill arrived at the
Churchill Downs barn of his prized 3-year-old Goldencents. It would be
10 hours of anticipation before the gates sprang open for Kentucky Derby
139 and O’Neill would find out if the bay colt would reward the trainer
his second consecutive victory in the world’s most famous race.
“Everyone around the barn was having a blast all week,” said a
reflective O’Neill. “After the success of I’ll Have Another last year,
we were all feeling a lot of confidence. There wasn’t nearly as much
pressure this year. Last year, there was a lot of self-induced pressure
and a lot of media pressure. Never having success in the Derby before,
you feel a little rattled at what it takes to get a horse ready. After
the win, you feel a little swag, more confidence, and everyone’s
The 45-year-old trainer had heard it was going to rain, but welcomed the prospect.
“You know what they say about Louisville,’’ he said. “They always
joke that if you don’t like the weather, wait five and it will change.
It was raining that morning, but I really didn’t think we’d get that
much consistent rain.
“But to be honest, I didn’t mind it because I really thought it
would lend to our horse’s chances. As it rained more and more, I was
getting more confident.
“From my experience with a wet-fast track, it’s easier to get the
distance. I thought it might turn the mile and one-quarter into a mile
and one-eighth if it was a really tight track.”
Unfortunately, as the day went on, track conditions worsened, causing O’Neill a bit of concern.
“It got kind of like what (jockey) Kevin (Krigger) said was, ‘a
little peanut butterish.’ It was getting a little sticky out there. It
became a track that was more laboring. As you saw, the winner went the
final half-mile in 53 seconds or something like that. It was pretty
“Our asset is that we have speed, but the way the race came out, it
really didn’t favor us. Hey, that’s part of racing. The plan was to go
23 (seconds, first quarter) and 47 (seconds, half mile). If he was on
the lead, great, if he was chasing, great. We had enough confidence in
our colt that we didn’t feel we had to rush him and try to go wire to
“Turning down the backside, I was all smiles. I thought this is
where we wanted to be. We’re going to be 1-2-3, this is perfect. I
glanced at the timer and saw 45 and change and from where we were
sitting, I was really happy.”
That optimism, however, was short-lived.
“Somewhere midway down the backstretch, I could tell he was
struggling and not getting stronger as the race went on,’’ said O’Neill.
“That was an ‘uh oh’ sign.
“I was very proud of Kevin. I thought he gave him a great ride.
Once he realized it wasn’t our day, he took it real easy on him and we
were able to see the fruits of that the following morning.”
Naturally, after the battle was lost, the condition of the horse became paramount.
“I was worried until I watched him break into a jog after the
race,’’ said O’Neill, ‘’then it was like ‘phew.’ Then, of course, you
want to see him back at the barn. When we got back there, he cooled out
As O’Neill pointed out, sometimes it takes a little longer for
something (physical) to show up, so the trainer was more than relieved
when he examined his runner the next morning.
“The day after, he ate up good and his legs were ice cold and
sound,’’ he said. “ At that point, we just figured we’d put a line
through the Derby and go for the shorter stretch and the shorter
distance of the (May 18) Preakness.”
The disappointment of the Derby has not eroded O’Neill’s confidence.
“I still think he ranks right up there with the top 3-year-olds this year,’’ said the trainer. “You wouldn’t necessarily say that after watching the Derby, but I think
he’s going to redeem himself as long as he trains well at Pimlico (he’s
scheduled to work May 13). I think we have a big chance to turn it
around (in the Preakness).’’