Doug O'Neill caught the red eye out of Southern California on Wednesday night, boarding a plane that would offer him a few moments of peace.
Not that the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another has wilted under the scrutiny of sudden popularity. He's described his experiences as "cool," even the part where he answers the same questions over and over.
And about his accommodations at Pimlico, the host of the Preakness Stakes that has, in recent years, been a popular place for trainers to avoid? He's pleased so far. Track officials picked him up at the airport and ushered him to a Thursday morning training session for I'll Have Another.
"It's like a wedding reception," the jovial California-based horseman said outside of Barn D. "They've got coffee and soda and everything."
I'll Have Another jogged Thursday morning, and did so swiftly. Though O'Neill said he'll probably keep his horse running at that pace until the Preakness on May 19, he does let his colts get near full speed toward the end of their run.
"Our thing is, always by the end of the gallop, to let them put their feet where they want to put them," O'Neill said, "with the theory being that they learn to breathe like they do in a race setting. They're less apt to take a bad step if you just let them put their feet where they want to put them, instead of fighting and forcing them."
O'Neill, whose win at the Derby was his first in a Triple Crown race, sought advice from Jack Van Berg, trainer of 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba. Based on that conversation, O'Neill does not plan to have his horse work. He likes the way I'll Have Another has dealt with everything so far.
"They talk to you with their body language," he said. "How they act, how they eat. Based on today, he looked the part to me."
O'Neill denied Thursday that he had practiced "milkshaking," slang for giving horses an illegal, performance-enhancing concoction consisting of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes. He faces up to a 180-day suspension in California for having a horse test positive for an elevated level of total carbon dioxide — commonly a result of milkshaking — for a third time in the state. He's also been suspended and fined for the same offense in Illinois.
While Maryland would adhere to California's penalty, a decision is not expected soon on O'Neill's most recent incident, which occurred in August 2010. O'Neill has filed suit alleging flawed testing procedures; a federal court dismissed that suit, saying it was a state matter and leaving O'Neill the option to appeal the California Horse Racing Board's decision.
Still in the company of Lava Man — the 11-year-old with more than $5 million in earnings — I'll Have Another has acclimated well to his new surroundings. O'Neill requested a quiet, out-of-the-way barn at Pimlico, a track he had only visited briefly before Thursday. His entourage of eight workers and as many horses has helped I'll Have Another overcome the recent trend of California horses running poorly after coming east.
"We really think one of the things that has worked for us is that we've tried to take the environment with us," assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said. "He's seeing the same horses, same people. He's smelling the same smells."
As for the decision to come to Pimlico so early — not since Manarchos in 2002 has a Derby winner arrived 10 or more days out from the Preakness — O'Neill said it became the consensus choice of all the horse's connections in the hours after winning at Churchill Downs. Since I'll Have Another hadn't been unnerved to that point, they figured another move would do no harm. So far, O'Neill said, that's proven to be true.
"He just hasn't turned a hair," O'Neill said. "He's a horse that's always been calm and relaxed in the stall, which is the is the sign of a good racehorse, in my mind. He knows how to turn it on and off."
O'Neill and his crew are hoping to rent a house near the water for the next week and a half. "Work together, hang together, win together," he said. The group often spent afternoons in Louisville barbecuing. O'Neill has already been booked to throw out the first pitch at Camden Yards on Tuesday, prior to the Orioles-Yankees game, and he will probably make several other appearances around Baltimore.
Other than that, he'll monitor the progress of his big horse.
"A lot of 'em, they'll shrink up as you ask 'em to work more or as they go through all of this stuff with the people and the media," O'Neill said. "They'll stop eating and you'll have to work your [butt] off to get 'em going. But not this horse. He's a stud."
Sixty-five miles north of Pimlico, at the Fair Hill Training Center near the Pennsylvania border, Graham Motion had Went the Day Well, who finished fourth at the Derby, jog a little less than a mile and gallop less than a mile in a field behind his barn. Unlike last year, when Motion took Derby champion Animal Kingdom to Pimlico the day of the Preakness, he plans to have Went the Day Well moved early next week.
"As I was last year with Animal Kingdom, I'm surprised with how well he's bounced out of the Derby," Motion said of Went the Day Well. "But I found the track for Preakness a little different last year, and this horse is still a bit immature. I'd like to get him out there earlier, let him get used to the surroundings a bit."
Michael Matz, who also trains out of Fair Hill, confirmed that Union Rags, seventh in the Derby, would skip the Preakness but Teeth of the Dog will race as long as he makes the field. He's 11th on the list of possibles, according to Pimlico officials; the race will be capped at 14 horses.
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