He’s saddled starters in several different countries, hoisted trophies at tracks from Santa Anita to Belmont Park, and trained champion horses to victory in the world’s top races – but trainer Doug O’Neill came full circle at a bullring track Sept. 9, when he saddled the 1,000th winner of his career* at the Los Angeles county fairgrounds’ tiny Fairplex Park.
O’Neill, 39, got his first stakes win at Fairplex Park with CTBA Marian winner Tanks Forthemusic in 1996. Thus, it was only fitting that he sent out his 1,000th career winner while the horses were running during the Pomona track’s 16-day meeting this month.
No stranger to the winners circle, O’Neill just cinched his third training title at Del Mar and has also been the leading trainer at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita in recent years. Best known for campaigning Lava Man and Champion 2-year-old Stevie Wonderboy (as well as multiple graded stakes winners, among them Great Hunter, Thor’s Echo, and Spring At Last), the trainer ranked third in the nation by earnings as of Sept. 11, with $8,649,153.
This year O'Neill has saddled 115 winners from 784 starters. His horses hit the wire first 15% of the time, and he maintains an in-the-money rate of 43%. Throughout his career he’s won two Breeders’ Cup Races, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Pacific Classic, and the Santa Anita Handicap. But the win at Fairplex, according to O’Neill, will be remembered as a special one.
“My mom and niece were at the fair, so they rushed over and were able to see the race and be there to celebrate with me,” said the trainer, whose mother, Dixie, had just celebrated her birthday. “My brother was there, as well. Any time you win, it’s fun, but it was definitely special to get that milestone.”
The afternoon began as just another “day at the office” for O’Neill, who was unaware of the approaching milestone. He saddled a filly in the fifth race and watched her finish last, then saddled a horse in the sixth who went wide on the first turn before finishing fifth. Somewhere between races, someone let him know he was teetering on the edge of a career highlight with 999 winners. He sent out two more starters, finishing second and third, before his filly Meetmeinthewoods got the job done.
“I didn’t even know I was approaching 1,000 wins,” O’Neill said. “I’m glad, though; I probably would have been hanging around 999 forever if I’d stressed out about it. As you could see by my attire on that particular afternoon, I didn’t know anything was about to happen… I dressed like a bum!”
Clothing styles aside, O’Neill was the definite winning trainer after the 11th race, a $57,100 allowance optional claimer at six furlongs on the dirt. Meetmeinthewoods broke alertly, settled well, edged up in the backstretch, made her move three wide and got up in the final strides to get the victory for owners Paul Reddam and Dennis O’Neill, the trainer’s brother.
“Having Paul Reddam own the horse that won my 1,000th race was fitting, really,” said O’Neill, who took out his training license in 1994. “I’ve been blessed with so many good owners, but Paul has been amazing in getting us horses that are consistently running in graded company and big-time races.”
O’Neill also mentioned Dennis O’Neill and assistant Leandro Morra as important factors in his success, and credited his top horses as well.
“It’s something we’re all here to do every morning, we’re trying to get our hands on real competitive equine athletes,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to have been involved in some really good horses, which definitely makes getting out of bed a lot easier.”
But the trainer also has his love for the racing industry to thank.
“I enjoy the game so much that if I only had a few claiming horses, I think I’d still feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said.
*Meetmeinthewoods was O'Neill's 998th winner in North America. His 2003 win of the Japan Dirt Cup (JAP-I) with Fleetstreet Dancer and his Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) victory this year with Spring at Last brings his career tally to the 1,000-win mark.