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).’’
BEJARANO, ESPINOZA, ELLIS INCH CLOSER TO MILESTONES
Rafael Bejarano, Victor Espinoza and Ron Ellis inched closer to milestones with one winner each on Sunday’s card.
Bejarano rode veteran Streets of Heaven to victory for Richard Baltas, giving the Peruvian born jockey his 2,996th victory. Espinoza and Ellis combined to take the Time To Leave Stakes with Teddy’s Promise. Espinoza now needs eight wins to reach 3,000 career victories and Ellis five to reach 1,000.
The win Sunday for Bejarano, who has five mounts Thursday, was his 12th of Spring/Summer meet and enabled him to remain three clear of Joe Talamo in the rider standings. Tyler Baze and Edwin Maldonado are one win behind Talamo.
Bob Baffert won five times last week, including the Grade II Mervyn LeRoy Handicap with Liaison. He enters the third week of the meet with eight winners, two more than fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer.
SEMINARS RETURN SATURDAY
Dan Ward, the longtime assistant trainer to Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, will be the guest of co-hosts Michael Burns and George Ortuzar at the next Escogiendo Ganadores (Picking Winners) session Saturday, May 11.
During the Spanish-language seminar, Ward, Burns and Ortuzar will discuss the Betfair Hollywood Park card, including the $70,000-added Came Home Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs over Cushion Track and the $100,000, Grade III Senorita Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at one mile on turf. The field of eight includes the Hollendorfer-trained Scarlet Strike.
Escogiendo Ganadores will begin at 11:30 a.m. at the Paddock Tote Board.
After Escogiendo Ganadores concludes, the Hollywood Insider will begin at the same location. One of the on-air personalities from Television Games Network (TVG) will play host for the seminar, which is scheduled to begin at 12 Noon.
Handicapping tips, insights and other last minute information will be offered on the afternoon’s races.
DHAAMER RARIN’ TO GO FOR SUNDAY’S ROUND TABLE
With a race under his belt in the Grade III Tokyo City Stakes March 23, trainer Mike Mitchell proclaimed Thursday that Irish bred Dhaamer is raring to go for Sunday’s $70,000 Round Table Stakes at 1 1-2 miles on the Betfair Hollywood Park turf.
“He’s doing super,” said Mitchell. “We passed up the San Juan Capistrano this year because that was his worst race last year. Now we have a nice fresh horse.”
Dhaamer, a 6-year-old son of Dubai Destination, is the defending Round Table champion and also captured the Grade III Sunset Handicap on closing day of the 2012 Spring/Summer meet.
ANNUAL MOTHER’S DAY BUFFET PRESENTED SUNDAY IN TURF CLUB
The popular Mother’s Day Buffet will be offered Sunday in the Betfair Hollywood Park Turf Club. The event includes Turf Club admission, general parking, program, tax, tip, coffee and tea.
Admission price is $52 for adults and $23 for ages 4-17. Children under 3 are admitted free.
Reservations are recommended and can be made at (310) 419-1601.
CLOSING STRIDES —Trainer Ron Ellis reported that Teddy’s Promise came out of her Time to Leave Stakes victory “perfect.” She could return in the $70,000 Desert Stormer Handicap June 16. Her main goal is the $200,000, Grade II A Gleam Handicap, a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race, July 13. Ellis also revealed that multiple stakes winners Include Me Out and Rail Trip are up to five-eighth of a mile workouts and about a month away from returning to competition……..Apprentice Jevian Toledo is a new face in the jock’s room. The Puerto Rican native has won 32 races since his first victory on New Year’s Day. The 18-year-old tacks 109 pounds and will be represented by Rene San Miguel ……..More than half the field (972) was eliminated last Sunday, the first day of the $2,500 winner-take-all Show Me the Money Contest. Contestants stay alive as long as their daily selections finish first, second or third. A total of 772 participants remain entering Thursday’s action.
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