It was exactly two years ago that Doug O'Neill departed this massive and mysterious Belmont Park race track with a big smile and a heavy heart.
He had been the talk of the town, in a town where being the biggest apple bears extra fruit in every conversation.
Five weeks earlier, he had been a horse trainer whose prominence was mostly limited to Southern California. In the ensuing five weeks, he became national, even international.
He trained a horse named after its owner's penchant to sit on the couch and ask for an additional cookie. Little did J. Paul Reddam, or O'Neill, know that I'll Have Another's chocolate-chip origins would quickly move on to floral fascination. When the horse won the Kentucky Derby's run for the roses and the Preakness' bouquet of black-eyed susans, all cameras pointed toward O'Neill.
There hadn't been a Triple Crown in horse racing since Affirmed in 1978. That passage of time, 34 years, made the sport lust for one. O'Neill was now the pilot of racing's boat, the man guiding a return to big headlines and increased fan chatter over the water cooler.
And he was up to the task. Even with a training violation on his record for milkshaking (illegally getting baking soda into a horse's system to improve endurance) he never faltered. All the questions, softballs and slippery sliders, were addressed. All the questioners were looked in the eye.
Nor did he crack publicly when, a week before I'll Have Another's run for the Triple Crown at Belmont, California racing officials announced he would need to, after the Belmont, serve a 45-day suspension and pay a $5,000 fine.
The ruling had been made in the hopes of clearing the air for O'Neill. A delay could have been seen as an administrative coverup, or clear guilt. The ruling, on a horse that ran in 2010 at Del Mar, cleared him of any direct wrongdoing, but levied a penalty because rules say the trainer of record is responsible for everything in his barn.
At the time, O'Neill said he had already spent $250,000 fighting the case and wasn't certain whether he would spend more. Eventually, he paid the $5,000 and served his 45 days away from the track.
Two years ago, he had bigger things to chew on. He was hoping his I'll Have Another would have one more day as a cookie monster.
The media crush continued, with the milkshaking ruling serving as yet another shot of reporting adrenaline. O'Neill's big smile, the slaps on the back, the daily doses of harmless Irish blarney, never wavered. He smiled, 200 times a day, as he responded to the same question, framed only slightly differently, that he was innocent of all charges.
Then, with all seemingly going well, a warm spot was discovered on the horse's leg after a Thursday jog, and O'Neill's training antenna went up.
"It was just a little heat," he says now. "It wasn't the kind of thing you go crying to mom about. You just hope he whacked it with another leg. You see that a lot and it clears up in a couple of hours."
But the heat was there again Friday, Belmont eve, after I'll Have Another had his morning trot. The groom felt it. O'Neill's assistant, Leandro Mora felt it. O'Neill felt it.
"At that point," O'Neill says, "You call the vet and hope."
When the vet's verdict came in — the beginning of tendinitis — the decision was easy.
"Could he have run? Yes," O'Neill says now. "But I'm proud that we didn't let him.
"It was pretty quick after that. The whole team kind of fell in line. We waited a little to tell everybody. Paul [Reddam] needed to get his mind around this. And then, we quickly refocused and celebrated what we had achieved as a group — a Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
"It was hard, because we had a chance to make history, to be involved in something this exciting. So many horsemen never get that chance, and here we were, saying no.
"But we did the right thing, and I'm proud of that."
O'Neill said he "gave the big horse a hug," and it was over. In a month, I'll Have Another was sold for $10 million and now stands at stud in Japan.
The press conference that ensued that Friday morning was the work of the great unprepared. Churchill Downs takes it lumps for media relations, but the New York Racing Assn., reached new lows that day.
O'Neill allegedly spoke from near his barn. If you weren't one of the first 10 people to show up, you don't know to this day, because you couldn't see or hear anything. The media was stacked 10 yards away, behind a fence, 15 and 20 deep.
Details would have been helpful, but the only hard facts that mattered were that, once again, racing would not have a Triple Crown, and that this time it was not settled at the finish line, but in the barn.
On Belmont Day 2012, O'Neill left the grounds before the big race. Dapper in suit and tie, he worked his way slowly through the throngs, still stopping to accommodate the occasional reporter's question.
There was a quick handshake for a media acquaintance, one more big Irish smile and he was into the limo and gone.
Saturday he will be back. He will saddle Goldencents in the $1.25-million Metropolitan Handicap. He says he will be rooting for his friend, Art Sherman, and California Chrome in the Belmont, to do what he couldn't two years ago.
He also says he doesn't remember if he's been back here since 2012.
That's understandable. Some things are best forgotten.
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