At first, Doug O'Neill thought his prank caller pal Mark was at it again.
So when the trainer of Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another was told Jessica Steinbrenner was on the line the other day, O'Neill wasn't buying it.
``OK, Mark, what's going on?'' he said into the phone, only to hear the voice on the other end reply. ``No, this is really Jessica.''
The daughter of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner invited O'Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, and I'll Have Another owner Paul Reddam to each throw out a ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium before the Met-Yankees game June 8. That's the night before the colt attempts to win the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
``What a huge honor it is,'' O'Neill said at a news conference May 28 at Belmont Park. ``That should be a blast.''
Team O'Neill has been quite a hit at ballparks during I'll Have Another's Triple Crown quest. Four days after the colt won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Gutierrez was at Dodger Stadium throwing out the first pitch. On the Tuesday before I'll Have Another won the Preakness (gr. I) at Pimlico Racecourse, O'Neill did the same before Baltimore's home game against the Yankees.
And the horse?
I'll Have Another went for another morning gallop Monday, jogging a half mile and then galloping another mile over the massive oval. The son of Flower Alley will train for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont without a timed workout, with O'Neill choosing to use gallops as a way of having his horse fresh when his chance arrives to join the likes of Secretariat, Citation, and Affirmed as the 12th Triple Crown champion.
``He looked great. He maintained his energy level and his stride and he looked fantastic,'' O'Neill said. ``Pretty much what you saw today is the game plan from here through the race.
``He may do a little more one day, but for the most part he'll have a mile-and-a-half exercise. We want to continue doing what got us here, and as long as we maintain his fitness and keep him happy and healthy I feel very good that he'll be good to go.''
O'Neill's team of assistants has settled into luxurious digs a few miles from the track in the tony village of Old Westbury. The rental comes courtesy of Reddam, and O'Neill says the house is so huge there's really no need for anyone to leave other than to go to work.
``It's just an absolute mansion,'' he said. ``Ironically, it's got a gate that's got three horses on it. That's kind of a little eerie. You drive in and it's like a football field front yard, and the mansion's got seven bedrooms, all the guys have their own bedrooms, there's a swimming pool, basketball court and tennis court. So we really don't need to leave the house to have an absolute wonderful time.''
For now, O'Neill is soaking it all in and seems comfortable dealing with all the attention. The 44-year-old California-based trainer says he's more excited than nervous about what's happening, and he's got I'll Have Another to thank.
``Most trainers get nervous when our horses aren't in good spots, so I'm just so proud of this horse,'' he said. ``It's like being a coach of a team where you've got just an absolute stud player and it definitely eases the nerves knowing that you've got a talented horse like I'll Have Another and a talented rider like Mario who knows the horse so well. That will ease any nerves I might have.''