Who Would’ve Thought? Reflections on Hiring a Young Doug O’Neill

by Jude Feld (reprinted with permission of our friends at Horse Racing Radio Network)

Penned May 22, 2012, post Preakness Day.

I thought about the Saturday morning Doug showed up at my barn, a skinny kid with sandy hair and an engaging manner. I remembered him walking that first horse…at arms length as most neophyte hotwalkers do.

Jude Feld, handicapper and bloggerIt was five o’clock on Friday afternoon in Baltimore. The spring weather was absolutely beautiful and Old Hilltop was awash in varying shades of pink, from the tablecloths on the infield tables to the dresses, shoes and hats worn by the bevy of pretty ladies at Pimlico for Black-Eyed Susan day.

Standing on the platform in front of the famous cupola, Aron Wellman, the master of Eclipse Thoroughbreds, was raising the massive crystal trophy of the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes winner over his head, in the manner that has become fashionable whenever you capture a prestigious sporting event.

His In Lingerie had just won the historic race, grabbing her quarter leaving the gate and looping the field to victory, while showing extraordinary gameness despite her sure discomfort.

Zoning out for a minute, I thought of the nine-year-old, at 4:30 in the morning, sitting on the steps of my Del Mar condo, next to my muddy barn high tops, waiting for me to drive him to the track. The little surfer boy, in a Stussy t-shirt and Rusty shorts, who couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with my small stable of racehorses.

My mind then drifted to the 12-year-old version, applying poultice to the fragile legs of a Thoroughbred while oggling the cleavage peeking out from the tube top of my hotwalker Brandy, as she picked out the feet of my pony.

On to stable star Vieille Vigne, as the teenaged Aron groomed her as she prepared for the Chula Vista (G2) and the smile he wore in the winners’ circle picture when she beat Lite Light and Brought to Mind.

Then the day he said goodbye to my crew, as he headed off to college, to play soccer and get smart.

Returning to real time, a smile on my face, I shook my head as I’ve been known to do when life brings great surprises.

“This is really cool. Who would have thought?”

Back at the barn, after the races, I checked on In Lingerie and fist bumped Aron. He stood against the fence, in powder blue pants and a black blazer, cocktail in hand like a guy in a Ralph Lauren ad, watching Todd Pletcher and his staff bandaging the big filly’s foot.

“Such a fabulous race,” I said.

“How game is she? Aron replied. “That was amazing, especially after cutting a blood vessel. The vet says she’ll be fine. We are so fortunate to have a filly like her.”

Saturday brought more fantastic weather.

“Mother Nature must be a racing fan,” Mike Penna would say on the radio.

The 137th Preakness (G1) was going to be run on a fast track, in front over 120,000 people and only one horse would have a shot at the Triple Crown – I’ll Have Another.

The race set up the way I thought it would on paper. Bodemeister went to the lead and a couple of horses stalked him, as his Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, backed up the pace. I’ll Have Another laid fourth on the outside, in the clear and away from trouble.

When the field turned for home, Smith asked Bodemeister to assert himself, the Zayat colorbearer squirted away and I’ll Have Another was asked by his rider to chase him.

The Kentucky Derby (G1) winner seemed hopelessly beaten as they straightened out in the lane and Hall Of Fame trainer Bob Baffert must have thought that he was about to win his sixth Preakness.

Just then, I’ll Have Another steeled himself for the drive. He put his head down and with jockey Mario Gutierrez encouraging him with hand, boot and whip, he collared Bodemeister in the shadow of the wire and was drawing away from his rival at the finish line.

It was 6:40 p.m. at Pimlico and Doug O’Neill was standing on that same platform that Aron Wellman had occupied the day before.

I thought about the Saturday morning Doug showed up at my barn, a skinny kid with sandy hair and an engaging manner. I remembered him walking that first horse…at arms length as most neophyte hotwalkers do.

Then recalling the day we left for his first Del Mar – vans to load at 3:00 a.m. with departure scheduled for 4:30 – the time that most young guys are just getting to bed on Saturday morning. With a couple dozen doughnuts in hand for his barnmates, a smiling face and a “rah rah” attitude, Doug supervised loading the vans, the more experienced in my crew more than happy to let the new guy do the heavy lifting.

That first week, “where the turf meets the surf,” he was like a kid in a candy store – among the horses, at the track and away from home – every future trainer’s dream.

When Friday morning came, after raking the shedrow and tow ring, he bid the crew adieu for the weekend, much to the chagrin of my assistant. We needed to have a conversation.

“This is a seven-day a week job,” I told him.

“Oh. My Mom’s not gonna like that,” he said.

I told Doug to go home for the weekend, we could get by.

“Talk to your Mom,” I said. “If she won’t let you work every day, that’s fine. I understand. If you can talk her into it, we’ll see you Monday for the rest of the meet.”

Monday morning, Doug was at the barn to greet me. He stayed long enough with my stable to learn how to be a good groom and was a tremendous asset to us, full of the same energy and enthusiasm that everyone witnessed from him during Preakness week.

I remembered the day he quit, apologizing, and even asking me if I was o.k. with him going to work for Hector Palma, to groom the horses his brother owned. I remembered the day he won his first race as a trainer and how happy I was for him. I thought about me getting choked up on the air when he won the Kentucky Derby. I was glad I avoided that this time.

Before leaving the pressbox roof, at the end of this wild weekend, I looked out at the cupola again. Shackleford’s blue and white silks had been replaced by the Reddam purple and white on the weather vane. I thought about Frank Wright in his natty hat and Jim McKay in his Wide World of Sports jacket and all the times I watched them broadcast the Preakness on television. I thought of Joe Hirsch and Chick Lang and how many great races they covered here. Say whatever you want to about Pimlico, but the place just oozes history.

Our Horse Racing Radio Network crew went back to the Preakness Barn to have a cocktail and celebrate I’ll Have Another’s important victory. I hugged Doug, we had a Maker’s Mark toast and talked about the race and the possible Triple Crown, as people snapped a few photos.

As we left the grounds I reflected on the last two days. How Friday was big for Aron and his new Eclipse Thoroughbreds partners. How Saturday was huge for Doug and provides him a chance at significant racing history. And how it was my good fortune to be able to share in their moments, by broadcasting those amazing races, “coast to coast and world-wide,” on the Horse Racing Radio Network.

That’s the great thing about Preakness, it brings out the best in everyone.

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with Brisnet.com and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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