Fun-loving Team O'Neill experiencing a 'different vibe' at this year's Preakness


Trainer Doug O'Neill was the talk of the town with I'll Have Another, but an underdog with Goldencents

May 16, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

The one-liners never stop when you're around Team O'Neill. Sometimes all that's missing is a brick wall, a stool and a microphone stand.

Take the other day, for instance.

Jockey Kevin Krigger has Goldencents out for his regular morning gallop in preparation for Saturday's Preakness. Trainer Doug O'Neill and his crew are watching it from the press box high atop Pimlico Race Course.

As Krigger walks the Santa Anita Derby winner onto the track, the jockey looks up and waves.

"Don't mess it up!" co-owner Dave Kenney cries out.

"Dave does motivational speaking," O'Neill quips immediately.

"Yeah, he's another Tony Roberts," someone else says, and now everyone's cracking up as Krigger and the horse disappear from view.

The jokes, put-downs and zingers go on for the next 15 minutes as Goldencents churns around the track. When the gallop is over and the horse is being cooled down, Krigger smiles when asked what it's like to be around this rolling sitcom on an everyday basis.

"Team O'Neill, I would step out of the box and say it's a unique team to work with," Krigger says in the soft accent of his native St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "You don't find many outfits as hilarious, as down-to-earth and as relaxed as these guys. ... It's like a comedy show every day.

"At the same time, they're running an outfit, so everything is being done the way it should be done. But we enjoy doing it and we have fun doing it."

The alternately loose-yet-businesslike atmosphere is a testament to the 44-year-old O'Neill, who comes to the Preakness with considerably less fanfare than he did last year.

Last year he was the talk of the town when he arrived with Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another.

O'Neill seemed to bask in all the attention. He and his crew had a blast as they took in the sights, partied at different restaurants and took in an Orioles-Yankees game, where O'Neill threw out the first pitch. Then I'll Have Another went out and won the Preakness, surging past Bodemeister at the wire to win by a neck.

The hype about a possible Triple Crown was everywhere, and O'Neill's national profile sky-rocketed. Then came the crushing blow of a lifetime, when I'll Have Another was injured right before the Belmont Stakes and had to be scratched.

How often does O'Neill think about that horrible turn of events?

"All the time," he says with a nod. "All the time. We celebrate his great run all the time. It's why we're in the game, to have a horse like him. To come so close to being a Triple Crown horse was an unbelievable feeling. He's definitely in our thoughts a lot. He gave a lot to us."

This year, with Goldencents, O'Neill says he's the hunter rather than the hunted going into Saturday's big race. The spotlight is squarely on Orb, the Derby winner and Preakness favorite. And the laid-back O'Neill seems fine with that, too.

"It is a different vibe," the Michigan native says. "But it's a great vibe. Management's so good to all of us and they just bend over backward to make all of us feel at home. Just being back here, I feel so lucky. And a similar vibe is, we feel we have a good chance to win again."

Well, maybe.

Goldencents is an 8-1 shot and will break out of the No. 2 gate, directly to the right of Orb in the dreaded No. 1 post. But O'Neill's horse didn't have a great run in the Derby, to say the least.

Even though he was the third betting choice, the son of Into Mischief finished 17th in the rain and mud at Churchill Downs.

Team O'Neill seemed puzzled at first with the horse's poor finish on racing's biggest stage but quickly came to terms with it.

"I think it's as simple as he just didn't handle the going," O'Neill says. "... Initially, I was thinking a fast, wet track would make a mile and a quarter easier. Usually it's really hard and wet on top. This turned out to be what Kevin termed almost 'peanut-butter-ish.' It was more demanding than a standard wet track."

But now Goldencents has a chance to redeem himself on another big stage. And with Krigger aboard, a win would mark the first time since 1898 that an African-American rider wins the Preakness.

Of course, nothing is sacred with Team O'Neill. Even that's fodder for one-liners.

"Kevin's black?" O'Neill says with mock incredulity when asked about the prospect of Krigger making history with a win Saturday.

Then, growing serious: "No, I think it's something we joke about. Doesn't matter the gender, the color, the religion, whatever. Kevin's a brilliant rider and we've seen it on Goldencents every time he's ridden him. It would be really cool and he'd be a great representative if [a win] were to come true."

Even then, the one-liners will never stop.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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