LOUISVILLE — They are taking up residence in a different barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch this year, this time tucked into No. 45. That detail aside, everything about Team O'Neill remains eerily familiar.
Trainer Doug O'Neill's "playoff beard" once again frames his oft-smiling face. And if one thought he and his posse were a fun bunch a year ago, the mood around the shedrow remains refreshingly stress-free considering the tension that often settles in over the Twin Spires during Kentucky Derby week.
O'Neill returns to the playing field the defending victor, having saddled his first Derby winner last year in eventual 3-year-old champion I'll Have Another.
It doesn't hurt either that the reason O'Neill and crew are back in Louisville this season is because they have another Grade I-winning sophomore on their hands carrying all kinds momentum into the first Saturday in May.
Not since Hall of Famer Bob Baffert went back-to-back with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997 and '98 has a trainer saddled consecutive winners in the Kentucky Derby. It has also been more than a decade since a Derby-winning trainer returned the following year with a hand as strong as O'Neill holds with the bay colt Goldencents this season.
If I'll Have Another's brilliant Derby win and subsequent Preakness Stakes triumph feels like it happened five minutes ago, his affable trainer hopes to provide an even fresher reminder of what a Team O'Neill celebration looks like in a classic winner's circle.
Enter Goldencents, a son of Into Mischief who has invoked his predecessor with his own rail of accomplishments, the most recent his 11/4-length triumph in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby — the same prep I'll Have Another captured prior to his Derby exploits.
"I'm having a blast. Life is good," said O'Neill, who brought a string of 16 horses to Churchill Downs. "Just being here is an absolute blessing because you never know if you're going to get lucky enough to get back here. We're soaking all this up.
"The Santa Anita Derby is Southern California's signature race so we got a little sprinkle of (repeating victory) back home. We would blow the roof off if we got lucky here. We're ready win, lose or draw to have a good time."
The last time a reigning Derby-winning trainer returned to the race the following year with a Grade I winner was when Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas had High Yield (15th in the Derby) among his three entrants in 2000, one year after saddling Charismatic to victory.
In terms of prior accomplishments, Goldencents is on par with where I'll Have Another was at this point last year.
Included in Goldencents' four wins from six career starts are three graded stakes victories, the first of which came when he toppled a field that included fellow Kentucky Derby contenders Mylute and Itsmyluckyday in the Grade III Delta Jackpot last November.
Following his win in the Grade III Sham Stakes during his seasonal bow on Jan. 5, Goldencents and his front-running speed faded to fourth after dueling with Flashback in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes. In an effort to get the colt to better harness his energy, O'Neill backed way off in his works and focused on getting Goldencents to relax in the mornings.
The result was that jockey Kevin Krigger — who is seeking to become the first African-American rider to win the Derby since 1902 — had a cool, responsive mount when time came to stalk and pounce in the Santa Anita Derby.
"I'd say he's pretty darn close to equal to where I'll Have Another was last year," O'Neill said. "I think I got in some trouble with letting this horse work too fast leading up to the earlier races this year, the San Felipe being one of them, and I kind of had to check myself there and make some adjustments.
"One way I've found to keep them more consistent is not do too many speed drills, because that can get them on their toes, and this horse is already on his toes."
Just as the mood surrounding Goldencents is upbeat, there is also good karma as Rick Pitino, fresh off leading the Louisville men's basketball team to the NCAA title, owns five percent of the colt in partnership with W.C. Racing and Dave Kenney.
Such positive energy is something that was lacking at times during O'Neill's Triple Crown run with I'll Have Another, when O'Neill's prior medication violations became a focal point of attention.
To his credit, O'Neill handled the onslaught with composure, answering every sharp inquiry with politeness.
"I think last year for every couple pats on the back we got one kick in the groin, so this year we're expecting maybe four or five pats before getting the kick," O'Neill said. "But I would rather have a good horse and answer the tough questions than a slow horse and nobody asking anything."
Even amidst last year's fire storm, O'Neill's demeanor was unfailingly buoyant. Nothing has changed on that front.
"I don't know how this would have felt if I was riding for anyone else, if it would have been this relaxed and this much fun," said Krigger, who is riding in his first Derby. "These guys, they don't make it like we're riding in the Derby. We're having fun now. And we have the horse to capitalize."TV: