09/25/2007 12:00AM

Claimers keep O'Neill stable on top

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Doug O'Neill's streak of consecutive training titles in Southern California reached eight Monday when he won the title at Fairplex Park. O'Neill has won or tied for every training title on the circuit since the 2006 Del Mar meeting.

Such results are expected from a stable of more than 100 horses that has been successful at the highest level of racing. This year, O'Neill has won major stakes in California, Dubai, Illinois, and New York.

Through Monday, O'Neill, 39, ranked third in the nation in 2007 earnings with more than $8.2 million, trailing Todd Pletcher ($20.6 million) and Steve Asmussen ($14.5 million).

Had his stable not had several leading horses injured earlier this year, it could have earned even more. What has sustained O'Neill this year is a deep group of claimers. Even when his top horses return, O'Neill does not plan to change. He's keeping the claimers and would not mind a few more.

"I enjoy the action, and you learn a lot from claiming horses," he said.

A recent example: When many of the nation's top trainers were buying yearlings at Keeneland earlier this month, O'Neill stayed at his Hollywood Park base, overseeing the stable.

"There are guys spending a million dollars on yearlings that will wind up in $25,000 maiden claimers," he said. "A couple of my most enjoyable horses have been claimers - Fleetstreet Dancer and Lava Man."

O'Neill expects many of his top horses that were injured earlier this year - including Spring at Last, Great Hunter, Liquidity, Notional, Whatsthescript, and Mistical Plan - to return to training. In the meantime, his barn will be low on established stakes horses. But he has dozens of horses, many claimers, ready to run in the next several weeks at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting. O'Neill expects his streak of training titles to reach nine.

"We'll have a strong end of the year and a good 2008," he said.

"Going into Del Mar, I had a lot of horses that weren't ready for Del Mar as much as we wanted them to be. I think we're stronger now. The horses should be gearing up for a big Oak Tree."

O'Neill has three contenders for the Breeders' Cup races at Monmouth Park on Oct. 26-27 - Lava Man for the newly created Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Maryfield for the BC Filly and Mare Sprint, and Grace Anatomy for the BC Juvenile Fillies.

Lava Man, who won his second Santa Anita Handicap and third Hollywood Gold Cup earlier this year, finished sixth in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 19. He will switch to turf for the Oak Tree Mile on Oct. 7, a prep to the Dirt Mile.

Maryfield, winner of the Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap at Saratoga in August, will not start again until the Filly and Mare Sprint. Grace Anatomy, the winner of a maiden race at Del Mar on Aug. 19, will make her stakes debut in the $500,000 Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 5.

One or two of them must win a Breeders' Cup race for O'Neill to surpass the personal best of $11.6 million in stable earnings he reached last year.

"With a couple of Breeders' Cup tallies, we could get there real quick," he said. "We're trying to grow our stable, and as the manager of the stable, I expect to get better with each year. When you have the sort of numbers we have, expectations are high."

O'Neill has won Breeders' Cup races in the last two years, the 2005 Juvenile with Stevie Wonderboy and the 2006 Sprint with Thor's Echo. In early April, the barn seemed poised to have several horses make runs at more Breeders' Cup wins.

Lava Man had successfully defended his title in the Santa Anita Handicap; Spring at Last had won the Godolphin Mile in Dubai; Great Hunter, Liquidity, and Notional were on the Triple Crown trail; Whatsthescript was a promising turf horse; and Mistical Plan was a contender for the Kentucky Oaks.

By Memorial Day, all of them but Lava Man were out of training with injuries. Worse, over the next few months, Stevie Wonderboy and the multiple stakes winner Harvard Avenue were retired, and Thor's Echo was benched until 2008 with a bone chip.

Five of the injured horses - Great Hunter, Liquidity, Mistical Plan, Notional, and Spring at Last - are owned by Paul Reddam. O'Neill considers himself lucky he still has Reddam as a client.

"He was supportive even though the horses got hurt," O'Neill said. "Ninety-nine percent of owners would have moved horses after the third phone call."

The Reddam-owned horses are expected to return to racing late this year or in 2008. Reddam insists he was not prepared to switch trainers.

"In the fall of last year and the early part of this year, things were going too well," Reddam said. "I thought, 'That's not how it is in the horse business.' I didn't think I would be that prophetic.

"The type of injuries were not that bad; they should come back. It's hard to have your faith waver when your trainer is winning the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup."

O'Neill is likely to have more wins in such important races in the near future, but his claimers will be winning much less glamorous races for a long time to come.