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Luck of the Irish

Posted by Brian Mulligan on 2/14/2011 1:04:05 PM

The tied leading conditioner at the current Santa Anita meeting is Irishman Doug O’Neill, but he paid his dues on his way to being one of the best trainers in the West.

He currently saddled 12 more horses than Bob Baffert to have his 22 happy endings and there is no doubt he will fight it out for the title.

The fact is Doug O’Neill has been around this business since his days as a hot walker beginning in 1986. He went on his own in the early 1990s with two horses. That could hardly rate as an auspicious beginning. But times have changed – plenty. The sandy-haired, crew cut guy with the quick smile and the hail-and-farewell attitude now has 80 horses in training and much less hair.

As for life as a trainer, O’Neill said at one point, “I love it. It’s an absolute dream come true. I wake up with no alarm clock everyday. I’m just blessed to have so many good owners, and to have a man like Leandro [assistant trainer Leandro Mora] as my right hand man.”

Anyone watching O’Neill for very long becomes acutely aware that he spends a lot of time on his cell phone. The natural question then is how does he find time to train? “Most of my conversations with owners during training hours are kind of short,” he says. “I talk at more length after training hours.”

Then, with that engaging smile, he says, “It wasn’t that long ago when no one called, so I’m always happy to hear a phone ring.”

Talk about your longshots in the racing game. O’Neill says this about his start as a hot walker right out of high school for former trainer Jude Feld: “I’d never touched a horse in my life prior to that and I’ve been doing it ever since.” He moved up to groom after that with trainers Richard Mandella, Doug Peterson and Hector Palma, the last-named for two years. Of his time with Mandella, O’Neill said, “I just worked for him for a short time, but long enough to learn how to handle a good horse.”

“In my 20s, when I needed a little more money than a groom makes,” O’Neill said, “I started doing a little side work with telephones with my brother, Dan, along with the horses.” He did both for about four or five years, he estimated, even after he went on his own.

He dates his big break to the mid-1990s when Gary Howard and Hideaway Farms sent him four horses at once. “That was like ‘Wow,’” O’Neill said. “That’s when I went from two horses to six. It became an all-day deal at that point, so I gave up my day job.”

Over the years, he’s compiled a pretty decent resume of outstanding horses. Included on the list are Hollywood Gold Cup winner Sky Jack, Japan Dirt Cup champion Fleetstreet Dancer, who finished third in last year’s Pacific Classic; Excessivepleasure, last year’s Iowa Derby and Indiana Derby winner and third-place finisher in the 2004 Godolphin Mile, and Classy Cara, who won the 2000 Fantasy Handicap at Oaklawn Park and finished third in that year’s Santa Anita Oaks and Kentucky Oaks.

His best horse by far has been Lava Man, the former $12, 500 claimer who went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap (twice) the Hollywood Gold Cup (thrice), as he became the rare commodity that could win the top three handicap races in California in one season.

O’Neill looks on his owners as vital parts of his team. “It’s a team effort,” he says, “and your owners are a huge part of the team. You have to have luck and good communication with them or your numbers just dwindle.” Referring to his large number of horses in training, O’Neill nonetheless warns: “You know, next week I could be back to two again. That’s the way the game is.”

Recruiting new owners is one of the harder things with which a trainer must deal. “It’s not easy to talk people into spending the kind of money it takes to play at this level,” O’Neill said earnestly. “You just hope you can hook up with someone who’s as passionate about the game as you are.”

What advice would O’Neill have for a potential young trainer coming into the business? “I’d tell him to hang in there and do it as long as he has a passion for it; as long as he can financially afford the heartaches sometimes it takes to get lucky. If he needs an alarm clock and he’s financially struggling, it might be time to find something else to do.”

On an every day basis, what should bettors look for when analyzing the stock of O’Neill? Well, he is on the patient side with firsters. He is 11% the last 5 years with debuting maiden claimers and just slightly better with MSW stock.

He obviously has a good eye for a horse and is 19% with first off the claim runners the last 5 years and when his starter has the top last Beyer figure, he’s won 18% the last 5 years.

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