08/22/2012 1:52PM

Hovdey: O’Neill may be beached, but the barn is on steady course

Shigeki Kikkawa
Richard’s Kid will be making his first start for his new barn in the Pacific Classic.

Doug O’Neill has missed saddling a big horse in a big race before. It’s the nature of the game in this globally oriented age, and it helps to have an assistant trainer you can count on to set the tack right.

O’Neill stayed home in March of 2007 when Spring at Last journeyed halfway around the globe to win the $1 million Godolphin Mile. Neither did he make the trip to Tokyo in November of 2005 when he sent stable star Lava Man to the $1.8 million Japan Cup Dirt. And in the summer of 2007, when Lava Man was going for his third straight victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup, O’Neill was on a long-planned holiday with his family in Ireland, celebrating his mother’s 70th birthday. Lava Man won without him.

“Of the team, if there is anyone that didn’t need to show up on game day, it would be me,” O’Neill told Daily Racing Form at the time. “I’m least important.”

Those sentiments will be fully tested over the coming month or so as O’Neill serves the 40-day suspension he agreed to swallow without further protest after his lawyers and the California Horse Racing Board negotiated the final pieces from a pair of high total carbon dioxide violations in 2010. The board ruled that there was no evidence O’Neill purposefully administered a substance that elevated the carbon dioxide levels, but that he had to take responsibility for the high tests nonetheless.

Justice dealyed is usually justice confused, and the fine points and precedents of the O’Neill case will be studied for years to come – especially in regards to the timing that put the announcement of the suspension ruling smack in the middle of O’Neill’s giddy run with I’ll Have Another during this year’s Triple Crown. According to racing board rules and regulations, the terms of the suspension ban O’Neill from all California racetracks – backside and front – and forbid him from benefiting financially from any horse running from the barn that bears his name, although there is nothing specific about who O’Neill can talk to from his banished vantage point or what he can talk about.

“Out of respect for the CHRB and the spirit of the suspension, I’m going cold turkey,” O’Neill said from his L.A. home Tuesday. “I will be talking to my brother Dennis, who has been very involved. And I do have contact with owners. But as far as day-to-day contact with the barn, I’m not going to push that. If they were to check my phone records during this time they’ll see no contact with the barn.

“In my mind the penalty is in place to give a guy a gut shot,” O’Neill went on. “And it has. Believe me, I’m not in a good spot right now because of it. With the exception of a cruise we once took, I don’t think I’ve been away from the races for more than a couple weeks since I was ten.”

To O’Neill, 44, “the barn” primarily means assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who has worked for O’Neill since 2002, now elevated to head trainer and appearing as the only name on the program for the duration of the suspension. Mora has had to secure his own worker’s compensation insurance and set up his own training accounts, although, according to O’Neill, funding for continuity of the stable payroll will come from the entity “Team O’Neill – Head Trainer Leandro Mora.” Team O’Neill has about a hundred horses between Del Mar and Hollywood Park.

Had O’Neill’s suspension been 60 days or more, his name would had to have been erased from all stable trappings, from tack boxes to the T-shirts worn by his staff. Instead, the O’Neill brand will continue to fly high, splashed on the exterior of his barns at Del Mar and Santa Anita, his green and white monogramed webbings untroubled and his “DO” still emblazoned on blinkers worn by the horses.

One of them will be Richard’s Kid, a Thoroughbred of considerable commerce and travel, who apparently has a lip tattoo that reads “For Sale.” He will be running for O’Neill – check that, Mora – for the first time in Sunday’s $1 million Pacific Classic after winning the 2009 and 2010 versions of the same race for trainer Bob Baffert, and being purchased by a partnership of O’Neill clients in a deal that closed last Saturday. O’Neill’s suspension started Sunday.

Richard’s Kid, a 7-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid, began life in Maryland and was first trained by Dickie Small (for whom he is named), then sold to Arnold Zetcher and Baffert, then sold to Zabeel Racing (Sheik Mohammed’s son Rashid) but kept with Baffert and taken to Dubai for the 2010 World Cup, then back to California, then back to Dubai for racing there in 2011 and 2012 while trained by Satish Seemar, then back to California for Baffert, who ran Richard’s Kid three times this summer before his sale last week.

As a result, Richard’s Kid was hardly surprised when he woke up in a new stall last Sunday morning, although he probably didn’t have much memory of one of the last guys he saw the night before.

“I flew back to Long Beach on Saturday night from Arlington Park, where we ran a couple of horses, then drove to Del Mar to be with my family,” O’Neill said. “I stopped by the track and gave a lot of loving to welcome that little bay, then walked out of the barn area at 11:59 p.m. and haven’t been there since.”

In serving what by modern standards is a lengthy ban, O’Neill finds himself in tall company. Todd Pletcher was set down for 45 days at the beginning of 2007 and for another 10 days in February of 2010. Steve Asmussen was grounded six months in late 2006 and into 2007. Between them they have won seven of the last eight Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer.

O’Neill hopes someday to be known for the one rather than the other. In the meantime he is determined to “make lemonade out of lemons,” while conceding there is potential fallout from his penalty.

“I want to be a good representative of the great game of horse racing,” O’Neill said. “The last thing I want is for someone to hear my name and think, ‘If that guy is doing good, that business is in trouble.’

“As far as clients are concerned, hopefully I won’t lose many, if any, during this time, but I surely can’t take that for granted,” O’Neill added. “Hopefully when they show up and I’m not there they’ll see the horses are in great hands. I am blessed with an amazing crew that’s had very little turnover. They really don’t need my ugly mug around there barking out orders every day.”

And so O’Neill will be glued to the TV on Sunday watching the Pacific Classic, a race he won in 2006 with Lava Man. Asked who he liked, he answered without hesitation.

“I like Leandro Mora’s horse,” he said.

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