Capturing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes brought plenty spoils of victory for Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another. He got to throw out first pitches, attend the Stanley Cup Final and enjoy the spotlight.
“I thought that Doug did a fantastic job preparing the horse, and I don’t know how he managed to have such an active social life at the same time,” owner Paul Reddam said after the Preakness. “But every time I turned on the TV or the radio, there he was. I think he just really enjoyed the whole ride.”
There’s much to enjoy, but being one step from the Triple Crown includes even more scrutiny for O’Neill, whose reputation is far from pristine. A 45-day suspension in California will go into effect July 1 for one horse testing positive for high carbon dioxide levels in 2010. He was disciplined twice before.
I’ll Have Another has not been the subject of negative attention, and O’Neill said he wasn’t apprehensive about facing more questions in advance of Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
“Not at all. No. You know, we know we play by the rules and this, it’s all about the horse,” he said. “We’re just going to focus on the horse, and I think we’ve got a horse and a team that with a little bit of luck, we can have an unbelievable time.”
O’Neill has been having an unbelievable time along the way, making TV appearances, running in charity races in Baltimore and New York and flashing his charm. He wore a New York Mets hat at Belmont Park the morning after Johan Santana’s no-hitter Saturday and mimicked Allen Iverson when talking recently about all the attention.
“No comment. Next question. I love it,” he joked. “Sorry. Practice? Practice? Thank you.”
But it’s not all joking around, not when the California Horse Racing Board’s suspension came down and Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, told the Atlantic magazine that Reddam should be “embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record.”
O’Neill expressed disappointment in that sentiment from Chenery, who at 90 still is respected in horse racing. It’s not the first criticism aimed at O’Neill, who has been accused of giving his horses “milkshakes” — mixes of bicarbonate soda, sugar and electrolytes designed to reduce fatigue and enhance performance.
“Anyone who is negative about it, I always invite them to come hang out with us at the barn, and if that doesn’t soften their negativity up, then what else can you do?” O’Neill said before the Preakness. He repeated that in response to Chenery, too.
Most of the time, the 44-year-old has been able to deftly brush off the accusations and spin the attention into positivity about “Team O’Neill.”
“We work hard and take good care of the horses, and when injuries come up, we just regroup, take care of them and just have a really good atmosphere around the barn,” he said. “That helps a ton to keep everything very loose for me and the horses and the staff.”
But the spotlight gets blindingly bright this week as I’ll Have Another will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. With history making O’Neill’s phone ring, he wants I’ll Have Another to be the focus.
“There’s a good chance I might change my phone number, but no, I’m just so proud of this horse,” O’Neill said. “The horse is way up here. We’re just people taking care of him. We love him. … But it’s all about the horse. When I get attention on me, I’ll just deflect it and focus. I owe it to the horse, I owe it to the Reddams and I owe it to Belmont.”