06/12/2012 2:35PM

Hollywood Park: O'Neill starts search for next stable star

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Doug O’Neill, pictured with I'll Have Another at Belmont Park, expects his activity at Hollywood Park to increase in coming weeks.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Sunday afternoon, Doug O’Neill sat alone in a deserted section of the turf club at Betfair Hollywood Park, watching races on a monitor and occasionally reaching for his overworked mobile phone.

It was the rare occasion when O’Neill had solitary time in the last month. With I’ll Have Another’s wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, O’Neill was at the center of attention in racing and the sports world.

By Sunday, two days after a tendon injury resulted in I’ll Have Another’s shocking retirement the day before the Belmont Stakes, O’Neill was back at his home base. There were no television cameras, horde of journalists, or well-wishers tagging along. For O’Neill, it was time to focus on the other 75 horses he trains.

A little peace and quiet, he admitted, would be different.

“I’ll be calling people, saying, ‘Hey, let’s talk,’ ” he said Sunday.

O’Neill, who turned 44 in the week after the Preakness, has had a career-defining spring with I’ll Have Another. He has trained three champions in his career, most recently 2006 outstanding sprinter Thor’s Echo, but that achievement does not match winning the first two races of the Triple Crown.

“What a ride,” he said Sunday, reflecting on the spring. “It was awesome, a great time that he gave us all year long. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse.”

O’Neill was left to ponder what could have happened if I’ll Have Another had started in the Belmont.

“I think he would have won,” he said. “Distance was never a problem for that horse.”

That is lost to history, and finding anything close will be difficult. O’Neill returns to a California stable that has a glaring absence at the top.

Through Sunday, O’Neill had seven wins from 39 starters at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. Bob Baffert led all trainers with 21 wins.

O’Neill said his stable will be more active in coming weeks, now that he is back in Southern California.

“We’ve been chilled,” he said. “I didn’t want to run horses when I wasn’t here. You want to make sure you know where you are with everything.”

Right now, that focus is finding another top horse in the stable, which is based largely at Hollywood Park with a smaller division at Santa Anita.

Willyconker, who won the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf at Santa Anita in March, has been turned out after recently undergoing surgery to have a bone chip removed in an ankle. Thirtyfirststreet, fourth in the Grade 2 Mervyn Leroy Handicap on May 5, could start in the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 7, but will be a longshot.

As a result, the stable’s 2-year-olds will be heavily scrutinized for ability. While O’Neill does not have any juveniles nominated to the two stakes at Hollywood Park on Saturday – the Willard Proctor or Cinderella Stakes – he says he has several prospects to run before the spring-summer meeting ends July 15.

In Thursday’s first race, a maiden race for 2-year-olds over five-furlongs, O’Neill starts Papa G.T., an Unbridled’s Song colt who was fourth in his debut May 6.

“He’s got a lot of talent,” he said.

For Paul and Zillah Reddam, who own I’ll Have Another, O’Neill trains a colt by Tapit and a filly by Candy Ride, Silent Ride, that are expected to start in coming weeks.

The colt has not been named.

“We can run by the end of the meeting,” he said. “That will be awesome and should get him ready for the stakes at Del Mar.”

As for Silent Ride, O’Neill said, “She can flat out run. She’s very close, probably the next couple of weeks.”

Those are among the early summer prospects for the fall – and beyond.

“Today is day one for searching for our 2013 Triple Crown horses,” he said.

That quest will lead to plenty of attention for O’Neill in the future.