Kentucky Derby

John Clay: A joyful Kentucky Derby ride for trainer Doug O'Neill

Trainer Doug O'Neill celebrated after I'll Have Another, with Mario Gutierrez up, pulled ahead late to win the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Saturday May 5, 2012.  Photo by Sam Riche
Trainer Doug O'Neill celebrated after I'll Have Another, with Mario Gutierrez up, pulled ahead late to win the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Saturday May 5, 2012. Photo by Sam Riche Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Doug O'Neill kept jumping.

The California trainer was positioned just off the rail at Churchill Downs, halfway between the finish line and the gap where the horses enter the track. Luckily, O'Neill is a tall man. He was standing about two deep on what could be described as cramped festival standing, but he had a clear view of the track.

Then when the horse he trains, I'll Have Another, came barreling down the stretch, passing the tiring Bodemeister, O'Neill started jumping.

Jumping up and down, up and down.

Here was this bearded man in a funny checkered hat, acting as if he was on some kind of pogo stick.

Jumping for joy.

After all, he had just won the Kentucky Derby.

Actually, the California horse I'll Have Another had just won the Kentucky Derby, beating Bodemeister by a length-and-a-half and third-place Dullahan by two lengths before a record crowd of 165,307 on a sun-drenched day at Churchill Downs.

That's the thing about the world's greatest race. Twenty groups of connections beam with pride as their respective horses walk in the post parade while the band plays My Old Kentucky Home, all with dreams of being the one that after a mile and a quarter gets to jump for joy. Only one gets to do it.

Todd Pletcher hoped he would be the one for a second time, only to watch his undefeated Wood Memorial winner Gemologist apparently get caught too close to Bodemeister's blistering pace and limp home 15th.

As Pletcher walked onto the track, not far from where O'Neill was jumping, he brushed off a media person with a terse, "Not right now."

Mike Matz thought he might get to do it a second time, but the trainer who won with Barbaro watched with clenched jaw as his highly regarded colt Union Rags found himself bottled in traffic yet again, and came home in eighth place.

"He just had a rough trip," said Matz.

Graham Motion had hoped he might be filled with joy a second year in a row, but his Went the Day Well closed well, just not well enough, and finished fourth.

Dale Romans had hoped he'd be the one celebrating as the hometown hero, but his Blue Grass winner Dullahan was chasing at the end and wound up third.

Then there was Bob Baffert, the man who had won this race three times before, who is still recovering from a March heart attack. His speed demon Bodemeister looked for all the world like some equine freak, leading the Derby while posting wicked fractions.

He was leading. Leading. Leading. Then faltering. Used up.

"I'm sorry," said Bodemeister's jockey Mike Smith when he met Baffert back in the paddock after the race. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Baffert said. "That's the one time where I came in second and I'm happy because he ran his race."

But the happiest was O'Neill, who has had his battles in the past with the California Horse Racing Board over drug testing. At least four times — three times in California, once in Illinois — his horses have tested positive for "milkshaking."

He served a 15-day suspension at Hawthorne Racecourse in Illinois in 2010. He has also filed a federal lawsuit against the CHRB over its testing methods.

All of that was in the background now. It had been 23 years since a Santa Anita Derby winner — Sunday Silence, trained by the legendary Charlie Whittingham — had come to Louisville and won the Derby.

"When I first started," said O'Neill later, "Charlie Whittingham was the man."

Now, O'Neill was the man, and he was feeling it. He ran out onto the racetrack and jumped and twirled, and the next thing you know the man with the beard was tossing that checked pork-pie hat up into the Churchill Downs grandstand.

He replaced it with a gold Santa Anita baseball cap so new you could still see the cardboard inside of it.

Meanwhile, in another part of Churchill, someone was asking that other California trainer, Baffert, what his heart rate was like when Bodemeister and I'll Have Another were battling down the stretch?

"You know what, I was watching my little son Bode," said Baffert of his 7-year-old son for whom the horse was named.

Then the trainer choked up while saying, "I feel bad for him" and had to walk away.

That's the thing about the Derby.

Only one horse gets to hit the finish line first.

Only one trainer gets to jump for joy.

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