05/06/2012 2:57PM

Hollywood Park: O’Neill stable has little time for Derby celebration

Benoit & Associates
Leandro Mora is trainer Doug O’Neill’s chief assistant. He watched I'll Have Another's Kentucky Derby win from Betfair Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The screaming, shouting, and celebrating was short-lived at trainer Doug O’Neill’s stable at Betfair Hollywood Park on Saturday afternoon following the win by I’ll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby.

The reality of backstretch life interfered in the moments after the race. It was time to head for the paddock to prepare another starter.

Leandro Mora, O’Neill’s chief assistant, stayed behind in California to manage the 72-horse stable last week. Moments after I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby, and long before the winner’s circle celebration was under way at Churchill Downs, Mora was bound for the paddock to start Thirtyfirststreet in the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap.

“That’s one reason I had to stay behind,” he said Sunday morning. “We had no options. We had to run these horses.”

Thirtyfirststreet, a 26-1 outsider, could only finish fourth behind Morning Line in the Mervin LeRoy. After that race, Mora was able to fully enjoy I’ll Have Another’s win and sneak in a quick phone celebratory phone call with O’Neill.

Mora, 53, has been O’Neill’s assistant for more than 11 years and has been widely credited by O’Neill for the stable’s long-term success. In the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s, Mora worked for the late trainer Brian Mayberry. Before joining O’Neill, Mora worked briefly for trainer Tim Pinfield in the early 2000s, when that stable had the multiple stakes winner Big Jag.

Of course, Mora, a native of Mexico, would have preferred to have stood alongside O’Neill at Churchill Downs and watched the stable’s first Kentucky Derby win. Watching from the backstretch office, Mora thought I’ll Have Another would only finish second when pacesetter Bodemeister looked to be in control of the race on the turn. His opinion changed in early stretch.

“I followed him all the way through it,” Mora said of I’ll Have Another. “On the turn, I thought he wouldn’t do it. [Bodemeister] looked like he wouldn’t stop. Mario [Guterriez]  was more confident than anyone else. When I saw him starting to make ground, I started screaming.”

I’ll Have Another prevailed by 1 1/2 lengths, winning for O’Neill’s longtime clients, Paul and Zillah Reddam of Sunset Beach, Calif. On Sunday, Mora’s pride shone through, even if he watched from afar.

“It’s an accomplishment,” Mora said, beaming. ”Even if I was not there, it’s an accomplishment.”

Mora was full of praise for jockey Mario Gutierrez, 25, who rode his first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Gutierrez began riding in Southern California last fall and gained the mount on I’ll Have Another at the start of the year. I’ll Have Another and Gutierrez are perfect in three starts – the Robert Lewis Stakes in February, the Santa Anita in Derby in April, and the Kentucky Derby.

A year ago, Gutierrez was riding at Hastings Park in British Columbia, where he watched the Kentucky Derby.

“The kid was really cool,” Mora said. “I couldn’t believe how cool he was. We’ll call him the Mexican Ice Man.”

As he said that, Mora was sat on a pony outside the stable. Soon, two juveniles emerged from the barn, exercise riders aboard, bound for a training session on the racetrack. The job went on.