Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the 147th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Doug O’Neill, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, is featured this week. He has three prospects on the Derby trail — The Great One, Hot Rod Charlie, and Wipe the Slate. The Great One is being pointed to the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on Saturday at his home track of Santa Anita while Wipe the Slate will be shipped to New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack to compete in the $300,000 Gotham Stakes. Hot Rod Charlie, a longshot runner-up in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, is headed for the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby on March 20 at Fair Grounds.
The Great One and Wipe the Slate each seek their first Derby qualifying points.
The San Felipe and Gotham reward the top four finishers according to the same 50-20-10-5 points scale. Hot Rod Charlie ranks 13th on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 10 points. He can add to that total in a big way since the Louisiana Derby is worth 100-40-20-10 points to its top four runners.
O’Neill was recently named as a finalist for the Racing Hall of Fame. He owns Derby victories with I’ll Have Another (2012), a Triple Crown threat until he was retired with a career-ending injury the day before the Belmont Stakes, and Nyquist (2016).
PEDULLA: How is The Great One doing?
O’NEILL: He’s doing fantastic, really well. We’re really optimistic for the race coming up.
PEDULLA: Why do you think it took five starts for him to break his maiden?
O’NEILL: We needed to get to know him a bit better and, obviously, two turns was something he needed. And he needed some more focus. The blinkers helped him a ton. The ability was always there. It was getting him into a situation where he could succeed. We found it and now, hopefully, we can keep it going.
PEDULLA: Was the 14-length margin surprising to you?
O’NEILL: It’s hard enough to win let alone win by that many. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a super-happy surprise. The offspring of Nyquist are just so much like their father, super competitive, super classy, a lot of stamina, a lot of gate speed. They check a lot of the boxes that you need to check to win a lot of the better races.
PEDULLA: Why the San Felipe for The Great One’s next start?
O’NEILL: It’s in our own backyard. It’s a tough test. It’s a good field. It gives us a good idea of where we’re at. It will really tell us if we’re in the top tier and we’ll go from there.
PEDULLA: What went into the decision to run Wipe the Slate in the Gotham?
O’NEILL: I think he’ll travel well and I love the one-turn mile for him.
PEDULLA: How is Hot Rod Charlie doing?
O’NEILL: He continues to do well. That comeback race [third in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis] was a real hard-fought stretch duel. We intentionally circled the Louisiana Derby because it would give him seven weeks in between, ample time to recover from that big effort. I’m happy with the way he responded and he should be ready to rock and roll March 20. The long stretch [at Fair Grounds] really intrigues us.
PEDULLA: What does it mean to you to be a Hall of Fame finalist?
O’NEILL: It’s just a crazy honor. It’s also something that it’s not really an individual award in my opinion. So much goes into it, all the staff and the owners and the horses and everything. If we ever get called as a barn, we’re going to celebrate as a barn. It’s not like any one person can ride ’em, shoe ’em, work the gate crew. There are a lot of things that go into it, and we’re just blessed to be nominated, for sure.
PEDULLA: What does your brother, Dennis, mean to your operation with his keen eye for a horse?
O’NEILL: You’re never going to confuse him with a lounge singer. He’s not a real social butterfly. He’s amazing as an equine scout for us. He does a great job of dissecting every little aspect of the horses at the sales. He’s not always right. But when he lands on one, it’s pretty exciting when they’re ready to go.
PEDULLA: It seemed that I’ll Have Another might have been on the verge of the Triple Crown before he got hurt. How do you handle that kind of disappointment?
O’NEILL: Honest to God, it was never disappointing. We immediately went into appreciation mode. We were so grateful and appreciative of every step of the journey that I’ll Have Another took us on. It’s just so hard to find a top equine athlete. When you fine one, you cherish every moment of it.
PEDULLA: Nyquist sired The Great One. Can you see the father in the son?
O’NEILL: Oh, yeah. He’s very athletic, very well balanced. He’s got gate speed, he’s got stamina, he’s got class. He’s great in the stall and he’s competitive on the track. That’s another key aspect to be a top race horse. They’ve got to be easy on themselves when they’re not competing, and he does just that. He’s got a really good mind.
PEDULLA: What would it mean to win a third Derby?
O’NEILL: It would just mean I’m the luckiest guy in the world.