Hollywood king O’Neill ready to settle in for Del Mar

Jul 22, 2003 5:59 AM

Aw, shucks.

The margin by which Doug O’Neill won the Hollywood Park training title is only exceeded by his modesty.

The 35-year-old native of Dearborn, Michigan, won 37 races at the 65-day Hollywood meet that concluded Sunday, outdistancing runner-up Bob Baffert, who had 20.

"I didn’t expect that kind of success when the meet started," O’Neill said. "We’ve just been able to assemble a great team and got lucky with some horses in good spots."

In addition to winning races, O’Neill is a leader when it comes to being unassuming, despite a career year in 2002.

Last year he won the Hollywood Gold Cup with reformed claimer Sky Jack; captured his first major training title at Hollywood Park’s autumn meet, and ranked among North America’s top 40 trainers (37th) with earnings of $3.2 million. O’Neill won 82 races and won with 20 percent of his starters.

This year he is winning at a 19 percent clip with 68 wins from 360 starts. There’s no secret to his success.

"I probably shouldn’t, but I train a lot of my horses alike, whether they’re $10,000 claimers or nice ones," he said of his stable, which numbers around 70. "I just do a lot of galloping and good care-taking and try to run them when they tell me they’re ready. It’s not brain surgery. If it was, I’d be in trouble."

O’Neill’s unpretentiousness and approachability belie his country-bumpkin appearance. That could be why some of the crew in his blond crew-cut has already bailed out. He is serious about his business to the point of being worrisome.

O’Neill’s stock was ready at Hollywood, where he sent out 207 horses compared to Baffert’s 120. As O’Neill is quick to point out, he couldn’t do it alone. One of his most important lieutenants is Leandro Mora, his assistant trainer.

"He was with (the late trainer) Brian Mayberry for a long time," O’Neill said of Mora. "No pun intended, but he is golden. He’s amazing, so lucking into a guy like that is what it’s all about."

O’Neill seldom plays favorites when it comes to riders, although primarily he employs the likes of Pat Valenzuela, Alex Solis, Tyler Baze, Victor Espinoza, Felipe Martinez and Iggy Puglisi.

"Every guy in the (jockeys’) room is so good, if you put him on a live horse, they’ll win," O’Neill said.

As for the 43-day Del Mar meet that begins Wednesday, O’Neill was understandably cautious as to whether he could maintain the momentum he built at Hollywood.

"I hope so," he said. "I ran a lot of horses the last week at Hollywood, so the first week or two at Del Mar might be kind of light. We probably won’t be real active the first week or two, but once we settle in, I’m hoping we’ll do OK."

HOMESTRETCH: The most indelible remark uttered by Laffit Pincay Jr. that confirmed his passion for riding was this, during his emotional retirement ceremony at Hollywood Park on July 13: "I still have a fire inside me that I cannot put out." For years, Pincay consumed only 600 calories a day to maintain his riding weight. Thus the comment that brought a light-hearted moment to the otherwise mirthless occasion came from Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., a contemporary of Pincay’s before Angel retired several years ago: "I always enjoyed flying with Laffit because I got double meals."

. . . The Thoroughbred Owners of California at its July 18 meeting asked president John Van de Kamp to take TOC’s racing dates policies to the California Horse Racing Board at its next meeting. The policies include a five-day break at Christmas 2004 (Christmas falls on a Saturday, and Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 27 and 28, usually are dark, so there would be a natural break in the racing calendar); a pilot program of four-day weeks at Golden Gate in January and February, with Southern California running its regular five-day weeks; the elimination of Monday fair racing in the North when there is no concurrent racing in the South, and no alteration in the Del Mar or Fairplex schedules.

. . . Starting Saturday, the day after "Seabiscuit" opens nationwide, Santa Anita will offer free, guided tram tours of the storied venue associated with the legendary horse, who made his home at Barn 38 while he ran at the Arcadia track from 1937 to 1940. "We are offering the tour in response to requests from fans of Seabiscuit who want to see the places where the great horse lived," said Santa Anita general manager Chris McCarron, a Hall of Fame jockey who served as racing designer and consultant on the movie. Seabiscuit raced 11 times at Santa Anita, including his last and most famous race, a triumph in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. His two narrow losses in the 1937 and 1938 Big ”˜Caps attracted more than 130,000 fans . . . Agent Kevin Burns, who represents Scotty Ziesing, Frank Olivares and Kristi Chapman, on why the stewards allow him to represent three jocks: "If you have more riders than you get mounts, they let you do that."