LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Their residence this year is in a different barn, No. 45, tucked away on the Churchill Downs backstretch. 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 someone thought he and his posse were a fun bunch a year ago, their mood along shedrow remains refreshingly stress-free considering the tension that often settles in over the Twin Spires during Kentucky Derby week.
O’Neill returns to Churchill Downs after saddling his first Derby winner last year in I’ll Have Another. Now he has another promising horse in Goldencents, a bay colt.
Not since 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.
Goldencents has won four of six career starts. Most recently he had a 1 ¼-length triumph in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby — the same prep race I’ll Have Another won before the Derby.
“I’m having a blast. Life is good,” O’Neill said. “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 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.
Rick Pitino, fresh off leading the Louisville men’s basketball team to the NCAA title, owns 5 percent of the Goldencents in partnership with W.C. Racing and Dave Kenney.
During O’Neill’s Triple Crown run with I’ll Have Another last year, O’Neill had to answer some tough questions about his past medication violations.
I’ll Have Another was a long shot winner in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness before being scratched for the Belmont Stakes because of a tendon injury.
“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 amid last year’s fire storm, O’Neill’s demeanor was unfailingly buoyant. Nothing has changed.
“These guys, they don’t make it like we’re riding in the Derby. We’re having fun now,” said Kevin Krigger, riding in his first Derby and seeking to become the first African-American jockey to win it since 1902. “And we have the horse to capitalize.”