Doug O'Neill is typically a jovial man, quick with a smile and friendly word whether he is meeting someone for the first time or the 20th.
It would be especially challenging given recent events to find any trainer with more reason to be in a wildly good mood these days. Be it East Coast, West Coast or — as of Friday evening — the Midwest, O'Neill's armada of 2-year-olds owned by his top client Paul Reddam is trying its darndest to corner the market on pre-race hype leading into the Breeders' Cup World Championship at Keeneland this month.
With three of her stablemates already penciled in to venture to Lexington for Oct. 30-31, the bay filly Gomo proved she can already handle top-level life in the Bluegrass just fine, thank you. The O'Neill trainee used a three-wide move on the final turn to launch herself to a 23/4-length victory over Dothraki Queen in Friday's Grade I, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades on the opening day of the Keeneland Fall Meet.
The sight of Reddam's purple and white silks hitting the wire in front of a major juvenile prep has become a reoccurring nightmare for horsemen around the nation. O'Neill and Reddam, who famously teamed up in 2012 to campaign dual classic winner I'll Have Another, already have undefeated multiple Grade I winner Nyquist set to be the likely favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His Grade I-winning stablemate Ralis is looking to stay on that course, too, with a good outing in Saturday's Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont.
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Part of the reason Gomo was sent to the Alcibiades was to keep her apart from stablemate Land Over Sea, who is likely bound for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies after running second in the Grade I Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Sept. 26. The two fillies are now set to be sharing gate space in the Breeders' Cup after Gomo sat a stalk and pounce trip along the rail in the field of 10, skipping over the sloppy track like a professional to earn her second win from five career starts.
"It's gotta be the best (group of 2-year-olds) I've ever had," O'Neill said of his army of babies. "It's pretty incredible. I think it's just one of those lucky years so far, where we were blessed with a lot of really good clients who stepped up and if they like them, and (brother and assistant) Dennis (O'Neill) likes the horses, they write the check. And this particular year everything has kind of unfolded the right way."
Purchased by Dennis O'Neill for $75,000 at this year's OBS March 2-year-olds in training sale, Gomo has alternated between starts on the dirt and turf and came into the 11⁄16-mile Alcibiades off a third-place run in the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf Stakes on Sept. 7.
Her steady-paced running style suggested two turns and more distance would be her thing. After sitting in third behind pacesetter Put Da Blame On Me through fractions of 24.34 and 49.43 in the Alcibiades, the daughter of Uncle Mo angled out approaching the final turn and was responding well to jockey Mario Gutierrez en route to covering the distance in 1:45.55.
"We tried to keep her and Land Over Sea apart, but we always felt she was a dirt filly and that she wanted two turns," said Reddam, who also owns Nyquist, Ralis and Land Over Sea. "In the turf race she showed she was even paced and long on the dirt is where you want even paced."
The 11,601 brave souls who endured a wet, raw day at Keeneland were also treated to memorable effort by Runhappy in the Grade III Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes in an outing that very well could be a preview of what is to come in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Facing a field that included defending race winner and reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint hero Work All Week, James McIngvale's Runhappy rushed up along the rail after breaking flat footed out of post position No. 1 and took command on the backstretch while drilling fractions of 21.52 and 44.81 with Work All Week sitting second.
When Work All Week tried to make a run at his 3-year-old rival, Runhappy showed the same finishing kick he did in winning the Grade I King's Bishop at Saratoga Aug. 29. When the 7-to-5 favorite crossed the wire 13/4 lengths in front of Barbados while stopping the clock in 1:09.96, it marked his fifth win from six career starts and gave his upstart trainer Maria Borell, who is based at The Thoroughbred Center, the fifth victory of her career.
"It's a dream come true," Borell said. "I just won my first race this year ... so it's been a huge year for me. I'm excited, but now I'm more relieved because everyone thought he was going to bounce after that race and that we had seen the best from him. People say he's a freak. He's so talented."