Trainer, horse showing Fla. muscle Bodybuilder, 'Duc' are gaining respect

March 19, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- The morning of the Fountain of Youth Stakes, someone stopped Jeremy McNeill and asked him if he wanted a job as a groom.

The tall, muscular Jamaican trainer, whose family-owned horse Duc d'Sligovil ended up winning a division of the Grade II stakes, is getting used to such comments.

The 23-year-old bodybuilder doesn't fit the stereotypical mold of the older, establishment-oriented, possibly out-of-shape, white male trainer.

"But it doesn't bother me. I just try to introduce myself first to people so they don't look foolish," he said.

McNeill could be the 1993 version of Shelley Riley on the Triple Crown trail.

He is a small-time trainer who has happened to come up with a very good horse, possibly classics material. More will be known after tomorrow when the gray Florida-bred colt, a grandson of the speedy Valid Appeal, races in the $500,000 Florida Derby, the first Grade I stakes leading up to the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

McNeill is a curiosity at the Florida tracks. He has only had his trainer's license for about a year and a half. His stable consists of just three horses, owned by his parents, Roy and Grace McNeill. And he has only won four races in his career, three of those with the "Duc," who has yet to finish worse than third in 10 lifetime starts.

The McNeills purchased the horse privately from an Ocala, Fla., breeder last winter as an unraced 2-year-old.

Duc d'Sligovil is South Florida's main hope for a hometown victory in tomorrow's race. The colt has won or placed in four stakes and has earned $183,249. He is ranked co-third choice (with Silver of Silver and Hidden Trick) behind Storm Tower and Living Vicariously in the early odds.

Once again the horse will be ridden by Julie Krone, runaway leader of the Gulfstream Park jockey standings. Through yesterday she had ridden 80 winners at the meet, 28 more than runner-up Jerry Bailey.

McNeill ended up with Krone only after Craig Perret refused to ride the horse in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Then it took Krone's agent two days to return McNeill's phone call and accept the mount.

"I don't think anyone had much confidence either in me or the horse," McNeill said.

But now the combination is beginning to be taken seriously.

McNeill's father, Roy, is a former government official in Jamaica and sat in Parliament for 15 years as an elected representative of the Jamaican Labor Party. He then moved his family to the Miami area when Jeremy was 10 years old.

"We have always had a few horses, first with trainer Dominic Imprescia, then with Manny Tortora, and even a couple with Jack Van Berg [the California-based Hall of Fame trainer]," Roy McNeill said. "Our best previous horse was a filly named Ange Gal, who won the Azalea Stakes at Calder."

Once Jeremy decided he wanted to become a trainer, he left Florida State University where he was a business major and went to work for Van Berg as a groom.

Van Berg has given his former employee advice on how to handle the colt. "For one thing, he advised me to ship over to Gulfstream from my regular stable area at Calder a few days before the race," the younger McNeill said. "This horse washes out if he ships over right before a race. I had to walk him 2 1/2 hours before one race [an allowance event at Gulfstream on Feb. 13] because he fretted so much. Then he still went out and won. That's when I knew I had some kind of horse."

Van Berg also told McNeill to build the horse's stamina by putting two-mile gallops into him, "making sure he finishes strong," McNeill said. "That's what happened in the Fountain of Youth. Julie said his late surge gave her goose bumps."

McNeill lives at home with his parents in Pembroke Pines, about 15 miles from Gulfstream Park. He started to work out seriously when he played varsity football at Cooper City High. He lifts weights about an hour each day five times a week and said he bench-presses 225 pounds.

"I can tell you one thing," said Ben Perkins Jr., who saddles Florida Derby favorite Storm Tower. "I'm glad this isn't an arm-wrestling contest."

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