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Breeders' Cup 2017

Doug O'Neill's Kentucky Derby 2013 Thoughts

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 looser.”

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 slow.

“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 wire.”

“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 great”

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).’’



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