Even now, two-thirds of the way toward racing's Triple Crown and semi-celebrity status, trainer Doug O'Neill said that, in restaurants, "I still get the table by the restroom. That's convenient, though, if you drink a lot. You've got to look at all the positives."
At 44, O'Neill's joy ride aboard I'll Have Another, this year's magic carpet of horseflesh, has not been without negatives. Wednesday, O'Neill will spend part of the morning supervising the mandatory transfer of I'll Have Another into the same security barn with his fellow Belmont Stakes entrants.
The new stable requirement, ordered last week by New York racing officials, has been called the "Doug O'Neill Rule," because of the 14 times in 14 years he has been hit with fines or suspensions for drug and medication violations. O'Neill faces a 45-day suspension by California racing officials for excess carbon dioxide levels in one of his horses, a ban that won't start until at least July 1.
O'Neill insisted Tuesday that he does not take the decree personally, though he argued that he has "never been guilty of having a horse with an illegal drug in him. There's been a lot of false statements that get picked up, copycats that write things that are hurtful and harmful, but I know we play by the rules.
"I'm just staying focused on what we're here for, trying to make history" -- by ushering I'll Have Another to the first Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep since 1978, and only the 12th ever.
O'Neill's confidence in sealing the deal is running so high that he declared: "My biggest fear is I'll Have Another waking up with a headache or something, and not feeling like running. I think if he shows up and runs his race, he's going to be very tough to beat."
Members of the I'll Have Another team Tuesday wore buttons proclaiming, "We Want Another." When a video of the Derby victory was shown at a media event, O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez quietly bumped fists and smiled, then the two of them -- after a clip of their horse's cinematic last-second Preakness win -- smiled at each other and simultaneously patted their hearts in a "whew" gesture.
"It has all been such a whirlwind," O'Neill said, "an absolute blast. But throughout the journey, you wanted to kind of hit the pause button and soak it all up and enjoy it. I can't believe, you know, in January, we were talking about focusing on 2-year-olds and the future and, all of a sudden, it's June, talking about the Triple Crown. An unbelievable journey in a short period of time."
O'Neill gushed praise for I'll Have Another owner J. Paul Reddam, for the 25-year-old Gutierrez and the I'll Have Another team. And, of course, for the horse.
"They talk to you in their own way," O'Neill said of thoroughbreds, "and I'll Have Another has continued to tell us, 'Bring it on; whatever else is going on, let's go.'
"He's the same . I've probably added 12 pounds."
Even with those tables near the restroom.