“What do you look for in a jockey?”
It was 6 a.m. at Santa Anita Park. I was visiting with Doug O'Neill, a race-horse trainer. We were at his barn, one of many barns just west of the racetrack.
We sat in a small prefab office near the stalls. Outside were horses, trainers, grooms and more horses. Inside were photos of horses, grooms, jockeys, awards and paintings of horses.
Staffers walked in and out, going about their business while we talked.
Goldencents is a 3-year-old thoroughbred trained by O'Neill.
Both Krigger and Goldencents are local favorites.
O'Neill thought for a moment before he answered my question about picking a jockey.
“What do I look for? There are so many good jockeys. I look for someone the horses will run for. I can't put my finger on it, why horses run for some jockeys but not others, but they run for Kevin.”
O'Neill ought to know. He has worked his way up. As an 18-year-old graduate of St. Monica's High School in Santa Monica, he began working in the racing stables as a hot-walker. A hot-walker is the woman or man who patiently walks the thoroughbreds with a rope.
After that, O'Neill worked his way up as a groom, barn foreman, assistant trainer and, eventually, he became a trainer with his own stable.
According to O'Neill, hot-walkers are an essential part of his team. There were no hot-walking machines at his barn that morning. Each thoroughbred was attended by one or more stable staff.
Today, O'Neill trains more than 80 horses that are split between Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. He has about 50 employees split between the two locations.
There were constant interruptions, phone calls, decisions to be made. O'Neill was consistently patient, joyful and enthusiastic.
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“I delegate. I can't control every facet of life. We're a team.”
As the morning rolled on, I saw that these were not empty words. O'Neill has a reputation for being respectful to his staff. The reputation is correct. As people came and went, he greeted each person with unequivocal good vibes.
“How did you learn those values?” I asked.
“From my mother,” he said. “You ought to meet her. She's an amazing woman. She taught me how to treat people with respect.”
And then, the icing on the cake: “Want to see Goldencents?” he asked, and off we went. He entered the stall first and began petting the horse on the muzzle. Goldencents looked happy. O'Neill was happy. He invited me to come closer. It was the coolest thing ever.
Here was this thoroughbred, barely more than a colt, surprisingly petite, with long legs and the cutest face. I had fallen for this horse. As I petted Goldencents, I wished him luck back in Kentucky, running for Krigger, the jockey that horses run for, and for Team O'Neill.
It was a beautiful morning, down at the barn at 6 a.m. The rest of the day was beautiful, as well.
ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at anitasusan.brenner @yahoo.com and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.