06/26/2007 11:00PM

40 years and a world apart


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Today's assignment is based on the concept of training a horse to win a race like the Hollywood Gold Cup over three consecutive years.

Michael E. "Buster" Millerick did it in 1965, 1966, and 1967 with Native Diver, a California-bred son of Imbros who was bred and owned by Louis K. Shapiro.

Douglas F. "No Nickname" O'Neill is trying to do it in 2005, 2006, and again on Saturday with Lava Man, a California-bred son of Slew City Slew who was claimed three years ago by owners Steve, Tracy, and Dave Kenly, and their partner, Jason Wood.

Without a doubt, there are many variables involved in such an accomplishment. From year to year, the level of competition and size of the fields can wax and wane. Track condition can play a role as well, and especially this time around, when Lava Man will be running in his first Gold Cup over a synthetic surface.

At the end of the day, however, it is the care and conditioning of the horse in question that determines such a remarkable streak. What Millerick did 40 years ago is fundamentally no different than what O'Neill is trying to do this weekend. The considerable challenge is producing a quality Thoroughbred at peak form for a specific task, and doing it at one-year intervals for three straight seasons.

O'Neill, 39, is revealing himself to be a deft manager of a huge racing operation, involving literally dozens of ownership interests competing at all levels of the stakes and condition book. He refers to himself as the "party host" of his profitable soiree, gathering together an eclectic mix of dedicated professionals to satisfy the requirements of conditioning, bedding, equipment, nutrition, physical therapies, hoof care, travel, office support, and veterinary treatment.

In terms of scope and reach, O'Neill is the modern American mega-trainer in every sense of the word, taking advantage of the liberal California stall policy that allows him to have just about as many horses in active training as he can realistically handle. The trainer paces his Hollywood Park shed rows each day, spending as much time on the cellphone as he does in actual contact with his horses, answering the needs of owners, agents, service providers, and assistants. Genial to a fault, O'Neill seems to have time for everyone.

It is not hard to guess what Buster Millerick would say if he was on the scene today to observe the sprawling, high-tech O'Neill operation first hand. Not hard to guess, but impossible to print, even in Letters to Penthouse, since Buster was the most enthusiastic practitioner of high-octane profanity anyone could ever imagine.

"It wasn't like he was being a jerk about his language," said Dr. Rick Arthur, who observed Millerick in action while an assistant to the respected veterinary pioneer Jack Robbins. "It was just his vocabulary. And the irony is, he'd go to a 4 a.m. mass every morning before he got to the track."

Millerick, a farmboy from the Northern California town of Petaluma, also was one of the most successful Thoroughbred trainers the American West has ever produced. He worked for Tom Smith and the Charles Howard stable during the Seabiscuit era. He enjoyed the patronage of such owners as Nelson Bunker Hunt, John Hertz, and DeCourcy Graham. And he trained stakes winners in five decades, beginning in 1948 with Del Mar Derby winner Frankly.

"He used to blow out his horses in 32 [seconds] the morning of a race," Arthur said. "They were big, heavy, good-looking things, and he'd spoil them rotten. He'd feed them handfuls of sugar cubes on the ring. They'd see him coming and just pull the hotwalker right over."

Millerick may have been a notorious grouch, aided and abetted by his nasty, three-legged barn dog Buttermilk. But he was also a soft touch for a hard-luck story, and just superstitious enough to be entertaining. Above all, he trained Native Diver through an incomparable career of seven campaigns, 81 starts and 37 wins, 34 of those coming in stakes events.

Millerick died in 1986 at the age of 80. He took with him a storehouse of tall tales, not to mention the recipes for his famous tack room potions. Millerick's memory lives on through the records of such outstanding runners as Kissin' George, Count of Honor, Windy Sea, Kamadora, Countess Fleet, George Lewis, and Mr. Prime Minister, along with The Diver, who must rank as the patron saint of all great Cal-bred geldings.

The work of the O'Neill stable with Lava Man has been admirable. With the exception of the ill-considered trip to Dubai last March for a race the horse could never win, most of their moves with the powerful gelding have been on the money. If Lava Man is able to win his third straight Gold Cup on Saturday, there will be high marks deserved for everyone involved, and a special place for him in the Gold Cup chapter of racing history. If he fails, well, winning two Gold Cups in a row is still pretty good. The only other horse to do that is Native Diver.