Doug O'Neill Trainer
Wednesday July 19, 2006
Michigan native Doug O'Neill went out on his own as a trainer in 1994 and won his first stakes race in '96, scored his first "major" wins with Classy Cara in the 2000 runnings of the Fantasy Stakes and Honeymoon Handicap, and claimed his first grade 1 win with Sky Jack in the 2002 Hollywood Gold Cup.
These days, O'Neill makes his home at Hollywood Park, where he's been top trainer in four of the last six meets. Doug has also been the winningest trainer at a number of other meets around the Southern California circuit and was named 2002 Trainer of the Year by the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association.
The list of winners trained by O'Neill includes the likes of Areyoutalkintome, Andujar, Cee's Irish, Estate Collection, Milwaukee Brew, Perfect Moon, Sharp Lisa, Skipaslew, and Supah Blitz.
The highlight of O'Neill's 2005 campaign was the impressive Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) win by eventual Eclipse Award 2YO Male Stevie Wonderboy, who fell victim to the Juvenile Jinx when he suffered an injury and added his name to the long line of Juvenile Champions to miss their date with Kentucky Derby destiny.
The current star of the Doug O'Neill Stable is back-to-back Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Lava Man, the California-bred former claimer who recorded his fifth consecutive win this year in the $750,000 Gold Cup and became the first horse since Affirmed in 1979 to win both the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Gold Cup in the same year. Trivia buffs will also note that Lava Man won the 2005 edition of the Gold Cup by the largest margin ever (8 3/4 lengths) and the 2006 by the smallest ('a short nose' over photo-mate Ace Blue).
Hi. I was wondering - do you consider winning three Hollywood Gold Cups so far your greatest accomplishment or Stevie Wonderboy's Eclipse Award/BC win?
Both are equally exciting accomplishments that would not have happened without awesome help.
Thank you for answering our questions. I would just like to say that you have done a marvelous job with Lava Man. Congrats on the gutsy Hollywood Gold Cup win. Where might we see Lava Man next?
August 20th at Del Mar. The Pacific Classic.
Hi Doug, I absolutely love Lava Man, he is the best I've seen, and I have been a racing fan for thirty plus years. It is just awesome to watch him run, breathtaking as he turns for home, arching his head with such power, giving his all, dead set on not letting any other horse pass him, not even after they pass the finish line. What is he like around the stable, friendly or mean?
Lava Man is very classy to be around. He'll nip at you if you're in front of his stall but is friendly to his rider and groom.
How is Stevie Wonderboy doing? Can you tell us his immediate plans for the future?
Stevie is doing fantastic. The Strub Series at Santa Anita is one of our goals, with maybe a prep or two before.
Who's your favorite two-year-old in your barn and who's your favorite three-year-old? Why?
I have a few I'm excited about. Cobalt Blue and Great Hunter head the list.
Doug, First, congratulations on the fine training job you've done with Lava Man. He truly is a wonderful horse. Second, could you give us an update on the progress of Itty Bitty Pretty? When do you think we might see him back racing?
Actually it’s a she. She came out of the Kentucky Oaks with a fractured splint, so we removed that, and she’s probably a couple of months away from running again. She’s back working and doing great.
Los Angeles, CA:
You train horses for Paul LoDuca, the catcher for the New York Mets. What is he like to be around?
He’s great. Awesome. Just a great guy who loves the horses. It’s funny, I always want to talk baseball when I’m around him, and he always wants to talk horses.
Lava Man is an amazing horse. What is your favorite thing about training him?
Lava Man puts a lot into his daily gallops - a real pleasure to train.
Hi, Doug. You are a class act and a credit to the industry. My question: what do you think are Stevie Wonderboy's chances of regaining Grade 1 form?
Very good. He looks as good as ever right now.
Hi, Doug. Great job this year. What do you and other prominent trainers do to actively support Thoroughbred charities and/or retirement for runners when their racing days are over?
Not enough; that is a very important part of our game, and I donate to a few of the local retirement farms but will continue to do more.
New York, NY:
Hi, Doug...thanks for stopping by. Lava has had a great year. Do you think he'll have anything left for BC this year? What are your plans to make sure he has something left in the tank?
I think the turf races have kept him fresher this year.
Cedar Rapids, IA:
Congratulations on the wonderful year you are having! I really love watching both Lava Man and Stevie Wonderboy! I was wondering which horse is the toughest personality wise to train? Do either have any special quirks you could share with us?
I would say both are very classy, kind horses and neither one is that tough to train. They both put a lot of energy into their gallops and are professional racehorses. Lava Man went out on the track this morning at Del Mar and did great. He’s taken to his new surroundings really well.
Hey, Doug. I was kind of disappointed that you did not have any entries for this year Claiming Crown. :(
I really thought Meetmeinthewoods was going to be very special after her astounding maiden win. What hindered her development in your opinion? Why couldn't she transfer that form to the next level? I see she's entered at Del Mar. All the best!
That’s a filly we kind of jumped into deep after her impressive maiden win, and I think it made it her regress a little bit. We gave her some time, and she’s back doing well. She should run well today and hopefully we can get her back to the talent she originally displayed.
What do you think is Lava Man's best distance/surface?
1 1/4 on the dirt.
Any advice you would give someone who is looking to get into the game by claiming a horse?
Start out in a partnership if you can; more fun, less risk.
How many horses do you have under your care? Are they in multiple locations/racetracks? How much help do you have and how much do you rely on them for information before making decisions?
I have around 100 horses. I'm certain my staff is one of the best in the game. A very solid team of riders, foremen, grooms, hot walkers, assistant and a very supportive, sharp brother named Dennis.
What do you think of the procedures California has put in place to test for "milkshaking"? What are the positives/negatives of it?
I think the intent is great, but the testing currently is inadequate. The technology is here to test before the race and they fail to implement that. Not sure why.
In ten years, will you still be racing in California if they don't have slot machines supporting the purses?
Yes, So. Cal is home now, and I'm pretty certain California will get some aid for the purses soon.
Seeing the fields whittle down to so few horses of late and mostly in California, what do you suggest tracks do to increase the sizes? It hurts horseplayers in the sense that there isn't any value in betting sometimes.
I think the synthetic tracks will help the field sizes in a positive way.
New York, NY:
What is your opinion on all of the California tracks changing over to synthetic racing surfaces? I know California needs bigger fields, but it seems like it will be quite a drastic change from the current lightning fast California tracks, won't it?
I think it's great. Anything to help keep our horses sounder. The players and horsemen will adjust to the time changes quickly.
Doug, Congratulations on all of Lava Man's accomplishments to-date. While everyone is discussing his Horse of the Year potential, given his amazing West Coast accomplishments, it still seems as though he is the Rodney Dangerfield of racing - he "gets no respect" from establishment broadcast journalists. Do you think that lack of respect is due to Lava Man being from the claiming ranks or a modern extension of the general bias against West Coast runners that has existed since the era of Seabiscuit?
I think Lava Man needs to travel and perform well before he gets respect nationwide, though he'll forever be the gutsiest horse I've ever been around.
Rochester Hills, MI:
Sky Jack was one of my favorite runners because he had overcome so much and seemed to be greatly loved by his owners. How is he spending his time these days?
He’s actually in a huge paddock--probably an acre--in Temecula, California. In the paddock next to him is FJ’s Pace, who was a warrior down the hill at Santa Anita. They are at Renmar Farm, owned by Rennie and Margie Lambert.
What did you see in Lava Man that prompted you to claim him? Did you ever expect him to be this good?
Actually, I saw my phone ring with Steve Kenly calling and he just loved the horse. He thought he was worth $62,500 (he was claimed for $50,000). We didn’t think he was going to be a Grade I winner.
San Francisco, CA:
Hi Doug!! You are a tremendous trainer, and I've noticed that you do some of your best work with horses that you claim off of another trainer. What do you look for in horses that you claim and how do you explain how you obtain such good results when claiming a horse away from a seemingly good trainer?
I think it’s a credit to our team. We’ve got a tremendous team. Like with Lava Man, a lot of our claims have been suggested by our owners, so they deserve a lot of the credit.
California is home to some of the best trainers in the world (Mandella, Drysdale, Sheriffs, Sadler come to mind). Who are some of the trainers you admire most and why?
Winning the Charles Whittingham Handicap brought a tear to my eye, so any list of great trainers starts with him.
Marco Island, FL:
How do you select a jockey for any particular horse in any particular race at any particular level?
A lot of that is something that you discuss with the owner. It’s oftentimes owner-influenced. We’re surrounded by so many good riders that you can’t go wrong with any one of them.
Los Angeles, CA:
I was just wondering, with everything Barbaro is going through right now, if you could talk about any horses under your care that have ever successfully beaten laminitis. I know Barbaro's case is severe, but is it possible he can overcome it? Does a horse with Barbaro's strength and willpower have a better chance of overcoming it than an average horse?
Knock on wood, we haven’t had any horses develop laminitis at the track.
It seems to me that certain jockeys seem to take better care of the horses during a race than others. I know certain breakdowns can't be prevented, but can a jockey help in protecting his mount? I'm talking about some of the most competitive jockeys, like Bill Shoemaker and Pat Day. Do you think there is any truth to this?
You have some riders that are more aggressive than others, but catastrophic injuries are freakish and hopefully infrequent occurrences.
Trainer Ron Moquette just won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs and made the comment that many trainers reach the end of a meet with $25,000 in bills that must be paid, and without a hit or two like this it's a tough nut to crack. This is a side of the business that probably is not mentioned like it should be. It is one tough business. What advice would you give someone contemplating a career in training Thoroughbred horses today?
Make sure you get hooked up with a good, solid owner who is supportive both financially and with good stock. Good owners are the key.
Doug, Wishing you the very best always and hoping for many more stakes winners to follow - will be in touch with you shortly to get some horses at the sale. -Kaleem Shah
Good to hear from you. Hopefully, your Cavaliers will have a good season.
Why do you think East Coast trainers run so few horses out West?
Hopefully, with the addition of safer tracks it will get a lot of the big owner outfits that left California coming back. I'm not sure why the trainers aren't here, but the safer track should bring back more owners.
Hi Doug, people are already starting to compare Lava Man with John Henry. Do you think Lava Man should be compared to John at this point in his career?
Naw, I think it's still too early. It's been a tremendous year, but let's get Lava Man's teeth a little bit longer.
Where do you rank your victory with Fleetstreet Dancer in the Japan Cup Dirt? It was such a gutsy win by the horse.
That's got to be top five in my career. The fact my wife and I were there to see it was quite an experience. That God for the rain. It really moved us up on the track.
How does it feel to train a horse in Lava Man that has done things on the track - winning Grade 1s on Turf and Dirt and the back-to-back Hollywood Gold Cups - that racing hasn't seen for one or two generations?
It feels great. Everyone around the barn realizes how blessed we are to have a horse like this.
Editor's Note: BloodHorse.com moderators retain editorial control over Talkin' Horses discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests; guests may decline to answer questions. Opinions expressed by guests of Talkin' Horses are those of the guest and do not represent the opinions of Blood-Horse Publications, its employees, associates, or affiliated organizations. Guests, dates, and times of Talkin' Horses discussions are subject to change.