Doug O'Neill said he slept "like a log" on the red-eye from California, and soon after landing in New York on Sunday he saw his superstar colt for the first time in a week. I'll Have Another immediately brightened a rainy morning.
"He looked great," the trainer said at a news conference at Belmont Park in Elmont. "His legs were ice cold and he cleaned up his feed tub. His coat looks great and his stride is terrific. We have all the confidence in him, and if he stays strong and healthy, he should be tough to beat."
The 3-year-old son of Flower Alley will try to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since 1978, on June 9 in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes. O'Neill is stunned to be aiming for racing immortality. "I can't believe I'm in this spot," he said. "I think I'm proof that if you have a great team and an amazing horse, miracles can happen.
"Winning the Santa Anita Derby, I didn't think life could get better than that. Then we won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. I think it takes a pretty special horse to do that, and if we're lucky enough to win the Triple Crown, I think he would be very deserving."
I'll Have Another jogged "4 or 5 furlongs" Sunday and galloped "about 7 furlongs," which O'Neill said will be his typical morning routine. He does not plan a timed workout before the Belmont. "I think the amount of energy he puts into his daily gallops is the reason why an official workout isn't important in my mind."
O'Neill spent six days in Southern California with his wife, Linette, and their children, Daniel, 9, and Kaylin, 7. The time recharging with the family wasn't without serious stress, however. On Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board suspended O'Neill for 45 days because his horse Argenta tested for an excessive level of total carbon dioxide after finishing eighth in an August 2010 race at the Del Mar racetrack.
When asked if he had been "on pins and needles" while awaiting the board's verdict, O'Neill said, "I wouldn't say I was like O.J. or anything like that."
The CHRB agreed with O'Neill that there was no evidence Argenta received a "milkshake," racetrack slang for a mixture of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes administered through a tube down a horse's nose. O'Neill was suspended 15 days for a "milkshaking" violation that occurred in April 2010 with Stephen's Got Hope, who finished seventh in the Illinois Derby.
"I was thrilled the CHRB said what I'd been saying all along, that there was no wrongdoing," he said. "I'm not sure why I got suspended after they said that."
The ban will not begin until July 1 at the earliest. Asked whether he would appeal, O'Neill said, "We'll check out all our options after the Belmont and let the attorneys handle that question."
Besides focusing on the Belmont track, known as the "Test of the Champion," Team O'Neill plans to continue enjoying the ride as much as possible. As he did in Louisville and Baltimore, owner Paul Reddam has rented a house for O'Neill, his assistant trainers -- his older brother, Dennis O'Neill, and Jack Sisterson -- and exercise riders, grooms and hot walkers. O'Neill would not reveal the location. "If I told you," he said, "I'd have to kill you."
The morning after the Preakness, Reddam emphasized the importance of staying loose. "I have no idea what's going to happen between now and June 9," Reddam said. "So my advice to everyone is to keep the tension down. This game is supposed to be fun, and we don't need to try to win the Triple Crown with a heavy heart."