Doug O’Neill stood beneath a large monitor in Aqueduct’s grandstand on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. While waiting to see how his California shipper would run, he chatted with horseplayers.
Rarely do big-time trainers hang out among the crowd before a major stakes, but O’Neill is a man without pretensions. Even after winning his second Kentucky Derby with undefeated Nyquist, he still comes across as an unassuming guy who wandered into racing at 18 and paid his dues for 25 years before hitting it big.
He’s unfailingly polite, often saying, “That’s a very good question” and mentioning the journalist’s name. His assistant trainer, Leandro Mora, said he treats everybody with respect.
“Doug is a cool guy,” Mora said. “It doesn’t matter to him who is who. Every day he walks into the barn he shakes hands with everybody.
“There’s no other trainer who does that.”
Mora, 57, would know, because he worked for a few of them before serving as O’Neill’s right-hand man for the past 15 years. He’s contributed to O’Neill’s success, along with owner J. Paul Reddam; jockey Mario Gutierrez; assistant trainer Jack Sisterson; bloodstock agents Dennis O’Neill, Doug’s brother, and Steve Rothblum; exercise rider Jonny Garcia; groom Elias Anaya and hot walker Fernel Cerrano.
The trainer salutes his staff, especially Dennis, who picked his Derby winners out of sales.
“My brother has to be the world’s best bloodstock agent,’’ O’Neill said. “And Leandro, Jack, Elias and Jonny, those guys are the unsung heroes. Because they do all the work, and they are there long hours.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have a horse like Nyquist, and it’s a credit to the whole crew. It’s been an incredible journey.’’
For the second time in five years, Team O’Neill has a chance at the Triple Crown. Nyquist will be odds-on Saturday in the Preakness at Pimlico. In 2012, Reddam’s colt I’ll Have Another was denied the opportunity for a sweep when he was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes because of a career-ending tendon injury.
Meet Team O’Neill’s big three: O’Neill, Reddam and Gutierrez.
TRAINER: DOUG O’NEILL
O’Neill, 47, was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and graduated high school in Southern California in 1986. The son of avid horseplayer Patrick O’Neill immediately gravitated to the racetrack, starting at the bottom. He likes to say he attended the University of Del Mar. He worked for trainers Jude Feld, Hector Palma, Richard Mandella and Doug Peterson before taking out his license in 1989 and working mainly with cheap horses.
He claimed Lava Man for $50,000 in 2004, and the California-bred gelding put O’Neill on the national map. During the next five years Lava Man earned $5.17 million, the record for after a claim. He attracted wealthier owners to O’Neill, who has developed five Eclipse Award winners, including Nyquist, last year’s 2-year-old champion.
The Reddam-O’Neill connection began by chance in 2004. Reddam’s friend Michael Schlesinger claimed Waki American for O’Neill and convinced Reddam to buy a piece of him. O’Neill used his charm to stroke his new patron.
“Doug called me every day with a status report on the horse,’’ Reddam said. “I wasn’t used to that and thought, ‘Well, this is nice.’ I had no idea I was being hustled.’’
Thirty-five of Reddam’s 50 horses in training, including “all the good ones,” are with O’Neill. The pair’s personalities are nothing alike but the relationship works.
“Paul uses his degree in philosophy,’’ O’Neill said. “If I say something’s black, he might say, ‘Why can’t it be white?’ He’s always questioning and trying to make you see the other side of a situation.
“He’s also the most loyal man I’ve ever met. Mario and I have made bad decisions and he’s stuck with us.’’
OWNER: J. PAUL REDDAM
Reddam, 60, and O’Neill share a Detroit connection, an NHL team and a passion for racing. Reddam grew up near Motown in Windsor, Ontario, and like millions of Canadians is a hockey nut. A diehard Red Wings fan since age 5, he named Nyquist after Wings wing Gustav Nyquist. A subpar season made Reddam wonder if this would be the equine Nyquist’s year.
“When the Red Wings [lost in] the playoffs, he joked, “we started to worry about our horse.” Good vibes returned Derby eve, when Nyquist scored in overtime for Team Sweden. On Derby morning, as so many Red Wings have done, the colt hung out with the Stanley Cup.
Reddam is probably the world’s only thoroughbred owner who can quote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the prime rate in the same conversation. Not many deep thinkers also are money lenders who hang out at racetracks.
After getting his Ph. D in philosophy from USC, Reddam taught it at Cal State Los Angeles. To augment his income he entered the mortgage business, which proved far more lucrative than discussing the meaning of life. He founded Ditech.com in 1995 and sold it to General Motors four years later. He started and operates CashCall, which specializes in loans of up to $25,000 at extremely high interest rates.
“Paul loves the horses,’’ O’Neill said, “but he treats it as a business. He’s very good at strategizing.”
Unlike the diplomatic O’Neill, Reddam is unfiltered. “When Doug talks about Team O’Neill, that sounds like a lot of cliché crap,’’ Reddam said, “but that’s really how it is.”
Although Derby runner-up Exaggerator is 0-for-4 against Nyquist, trainer Keith Desormeaux said he’s looking forward to the rematch.
Reddam’s response: “I would have thought he’d be sick of us by now.”
JOCKEY: MARIO GUTIERREZ
Gutierrez, 29, came up on the “rules are for fools” bush tracks of Mexico. Tall for a rider at 5-7, he is quiet, thoughtful and articulate. Minutes after last Saturday’s Derby, he got choked up in a horseback interview with NBC’s Donna Brothers.
“This is an amazing feeling,” he said, “and I have to thank my wife. I wasn’t riding that good, but she believed in me. She kept saying things are going to turn around.”
Rebecca Gutierrez is pregnant with their first child, and Mario credits her for getting his mind right. After brilliant Derby and Preakness rides on I’ll Have Another, he endured an “Is that all there is?” period. His career slumped in Southern California and at Hastings Park near Vancouver, British Columbia. He got down on himself, and in 2014 his purse earnings were half of what they were in 2012.
“He’s found a beautiful woman in Rebecca,” O’Neill said. She encouraged Gutierrez to consult a sports psychologist, nutritionist, strength and conditioning coach and a flexibility trainer. After resisting, he agreed.
“I do believe that I’ve matured as a rider,’’ Gutierrez said. “I’m doing things I wasn’t doing four years ago, so that gives me a lot of confidence.”
His coolness under pressure comforts O’Neill.
“I think he’s extremely confident but not cocky,’’ O’Neill said. “Mario has got ice in his veins. He’s the guy you want at the free-throw line at the end of the game. Got to thank Mario big time.”