Steve Rothblum’s eyes were weary with joyous fatigue. As he rested his frame upon a barrier at Churchill Downs’ Barn 41 the morning of May 8, the arm of Leandro Mora draped over his back and, together, they tried to articulate to the surrounding media the case of déjà vu that arrived less than 24 hours earlier.
Four years ago, the mainstream got acquainted with Team O’Neill, the moniker that trainer Doug O’Neill and his staff have given themselves. As their charge, I’ll Have Another, captured the first two legs of the 2012 Triple Crown and headed to Belmont Park with history at his feet, he was surrounded by a human front that took every twist of the journey in lockstep.
The ending of that particular story was nobody’s fairytale. And as much as they hoped for the chance to do it all again, no one who counts Thoroughbred racing as their livelihood dares count on a return to the biggest stage.
And yet, there they all were, scattered across the Churchill Downs track the evening of May 7 — O’Neill with assistant trainer Jack Sisterson bear-hugging his shoulders, senior assistant Mora with his fists victoriously raised towards the sky, bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill seeking out his brother, operations manager Rothblum the picture of restrained jubilance, exercise rider Jonny Garcia at the lead shank en route to the winner’s circle with the champion bay colt who started this all up once again.
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They say they’ve all changed for the better since they first played out that scene in 2012. They say it’s because the core hasn’t changed at all.
“It’s another dream come true,” Mora, his voice hoarse from celebration, said the morning after the barn’s unbeaten colt Nyquist had captured the 142nd Kentucky Derby. “We have to thank everyone. This is not just me, me, me. We all put a little piece of ourselves in here.”
Continuity and loyalty can be rare beasts on the nation’s backstretches. In the O’Neill barn, however, it is the status quo. Where many training operations understandably go through their share of staff turnover, it is a unique feature of Team O’Neill that it hasn’t had a major face change in several seasons.
Be it the jovial Mora, now in his 14th year as Doug O’Neill’s right-hand man, groom Elias Anaya, or equine physical therapist Tyler Cerin, who was working with the crew during that storied 2012 season, there is a genuine good vibe as they go about their daily duties. Smiles and fist bumps are doled out en masse when the boss shows up. Curious admirers around the barn are rewarded for their interest with unfailing politeness.
As they ready themselves for Nyquist’s expected start in the 141st Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 21, there is a relaxed confidence that balances the seriousness of keeping the horse that has never been passed primed for his next defense.
We win together, we lose together and we kind of have each other’s backs and pick each other up in the times when it’s kind of tough. And that’s what makes us that much tighter.
Jack Sisterson, assistant trainer to Doug O’Neill
It’s more than just having been there and done that successfully. It’s a deeper comfort level of knowing that at every turn, someone there has their back.
“That’s where it all has to go to Doug for that,” said Sisterson, a 31-year-old University of Louisville graduate who started working for O’Neill in 2011 and has become arguably as visible as his boss while overseeing Nyquist’s daily preparations since shipping from Florida to Kentucky in early April. “He’s just such a likeable and knowledgeable person to work for, and no one wants to leave. There is no turnover within the staff. You go from the top and work down and everyone loves the barn so, we’re not going anywhere.
“You can’t beat it, because the highs are great but then obviously we all know this sport comes with a lot of lows as well and … we win together, we lose together and we kind of have each other’s backs and pick each other up in the times when it’s kind of tough. And that’s what makes us that much tighter.”
Extreme success coupled with grand adversity can break the most golden of threads, which is why the stalwart nature of the O’Neill camp stands out all the more. When it was announced that dual classic winner I’ll Have Another had suffered a career-ending injury one day before the 2012 Belmont Stakes, it was the gut punch that finished off five weeks of triumph and tumult.
As much as O’Neill endeared himself during that run with his unflinchingly upbeat demeanor and knack for treating every conversation as if he is rehashing with an old friend, he also went through some of the harshest fire of his near 30-year-career when he had to answer questions about several medication-related positives, including a 45-day suspension handed down by the California Horse Racing Board in May 2012 for elevated levels of total carbon dioxide in one his of runners from 2010.
While O’Neill never outwardly cracked, he and his team were admittedly stung by the public skepticism and criticism from some of the industry’s luminaries, including Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat. They not only tightened up their own behavior and barn procedures, they tried to open their doors to the outside world via an active social media presence and collaborating with TVG for a behind-the-scenes video series called Down Home with Team O’Neill this season.
“In 2012, everyone wanted to delve into any small, tiny issue that they thought was a big deal, and now here we are years later and you guys (media) have learned who we are and who Doug is and what kind of man he is,” said Rothblum, a former trainer himself. “You guys know how our team works, you see us everyday. We have a core group of five or six of us and we are like brothers.”
Added O’Neill, “This year we are a lot more mature. And the people that are surrounding Nyquist are a lot more mature. And … part of me was, God, I want to represent Nyquist in the proper way. And I think the whole crew did a pretty good job.”
The intentionally campy opening of the Down Home with Team O’Neill series features O’Neill and his boys ambling nine abreast, sunglasses clad, giving off their best Entourage airs as they make their way through the Santa Anita Park tunnel. There was nothing lighthearted, however, about the way they rallied when the man they call their foundation was rocked last fall.
On Sept. 18, 57-year-old Mora suffered a mild stroke that landed him in Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina, Calif., for nearly a week. His recovery was, thankfully, relatively swift and without major setback. Still, it smacked his brethren to think that one of their own might not have been on that Churchill Downs track to watch Nyquist come back from his latest signature triumph.
“I still get emotional thinking about it, worrying about my brother,” Rothblum said. “He recovered quickly, he was lucky his girlfriend was there to catch it in the onset and before anything major happened. Leandro is strong as a bull, he recovered well. But yeah, we were all scared to death. And … it made all this really special.”
The post-race celebration after Nyquist’s Derby win was a subdued one by Team O’Neill standards. Doug O’Neill shared the evening with his family. The rest of the crew shared knowing laughs and a slew of embraces.
To a man, they acted like they had been there before. To man, they all had.
“I’m so blessed and so lucky to have them stay with me as long as they have,” O’Neill said of his staff. “And good people, too. If the people aren’t really good, you’d see why they wouldn’t move, but they’re good people. The continuity is huge. It’s great, selfishly, for me because I can be away and just know we all think alike. I love that these guys are all great horsemen, but they are all great friends as well.”