Although trainer Doug O'Neill has played a significant role in some of racing's biggest days, on May 5 he will experience saddling a Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contender for the first time.
After the defection of his trainee Cobalt Blue, O'Neill will be sending out two horses in the Derby, Great Hunter and Liquidity. Both colts are owned by J. Paul Reddam.
"Both are eating great, training great, and look great," O'Neill said of his charges. "I am so proud of them and so proud and honored to be here. Hopefully, it will be an annual event for the O'Neill family."
Because it is his first Derby experience, O'Neill did ask a fellow trainer who has been through the experience for a little bit of advice.
"I talked to Mr. Carl Nafzger a few times throughout the week," he said. "He is a great, great man, and he already has a Derby under his belt, so I asked him for advice as far as the post position draw goes. He just said, 'you want to stay somewhere in the middle.'"
Nafzger won the Derby 17 years ago with Unbridled and returns this year with Street Sense, last year's champion 2-year-old colt and winner of the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). O'Neill won the Juvenile in 2005 with Stevie Wonderboy, but said participating in Derby week is still a unique experience.
"I think there is so much tradition in the Kentucky Derby," he said. "As great as the Dubai World Cup and the Breeders' Cup (World Championships) are, they are still a few years from getting the world-wide recognition.
"(The Derby) is everything I have imagined, times 10. It has been so much fun and there have been so many friendly people. I just love the fact that the focus is all on the horses. They all have their saddle towels and they are all treated like celebrities, like they should be. It is a lot of fun."