05/02/2013 11:50AM

Jay Hovdey: O'Neill waving Golden State flag in Kentucky Derby

Tom Keyser
“It’s an honor to be the solo surviving California participant this year,” trainer Doug O’Neill said of bringing Goldencents to the Kentucky Derby.

Unless you bleed Celtics green or lean toward tattoos in a pinstripe pattern, you’re probably like most sports fans who react badly to a dynasty. They’re like strikeouts in baseball. And strikeouts, as defined by Crash Davis in “Bull Durham,” are boring. “Besides that,” Crash added, “they’re fascist.”

From the mid-1990s right through to the first blush of the new century, it was beginning to look like California horses had a lock on the Kentucky Derby. First there was Silver Charm, then Real Quiet, followed by Charismatic and then Fusaichi Pegasus. Only the barest tip of Grindstone’s nose in 1996 kept Cavonnier from joining the drumbeat of the West Coast parade.

[2013 KENTUCKY DERBY: Get PPs, contender profiles, live updates]

This upset the rest of the racing world to no end. The Kentucky Derby is supposed to be a democratic pursuit, immune to domination from one quarter or another, open to all walks of racing life. You could be the retired Ohio businessman who trained your own one-horse stable, and if that one horse was Carry Back and you were Jack Price, you were in luck. You could tiptoe into Louisville with an exotic entourage and a horse from Venezuela, waive consecutive translation, and leave town with everyone crying, “Canonero!” You could be a Tampa realtor named Dennis Diaz who spent $12,500 on a Florida yearling, called him Spend a Buck and turned him loose on the lead. The rest became Derby history.

But for an otherwise privileged place like California to hog the Kentucky Derby limelight seemed downright greedy. They already had Malibu and Big Sur, Yosemite and Sequoia, the Golden Gate on a clear day and Los Angeles at night. Folks who lived there were either in show business or owned wineries. The women were strong, the men were good-looking, and the children all had agents. No fair.

Well, karma catches up eventually. The Derbies of the last decade have smiled rarely on horses from the Left Coast. In 2003 there were seven Californians among the 16 in the Derby, but the closest they came to catching Funny Cide was fourth. A half-dozen tried in 2004, and one, Imperialism, managed to be a distant third to Smarty Jones.

The Derby victory in 2005 of California-based Giacomo, at 50-1, was written off in many quarters as a cosmic prank of the highest order. The colt, as perfect as he was that day, was never heard from again on the national stage.

There was no joy for any of the six Californians colts in 2006. Four more floundered in 2007, while three gave futile chase to Big Brown in 2008. They rallied in 2009, sort of, to finish second, fourth, and fifth, but this provided small consolation the way Mine That Bird stole the show.

In 2010, with a large California contingent in Kentucky, it was left to the 30-1 Make Music for Me to save face with a fourth to Super Saver. In 2011 the best that any of the three California horses could do was split the 19-horse field and finish 10th to Animal Kingdom.

Then in 2012 California descended in force, like the good old days, and finished first, second, fifth, sixth, and seventh in a field of 20. Order seemed to be restored, at least from a California perspective, and as 2013 dawned it appeared as if this year’s Derby would have that California glow once again, with all the major stables in play.

John Sadler thought he had the real thing in Demonic, a son of Bernardini, but Demonic bruised a foot and was not able to answer the bell for any of the West Coast Derby preps.

Jerry Hollendorfer was quietly confident that his Ghostzapper colt Hear the Ghost would take him to Kentucky, and he was well on his way after winning the San Felipe. The next time he made headlines was after X-rays revealed a chipped knee.

Doug O’Neill let himself believe that the close second-place finish of He’s Had Enough in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile would propel the gray colt to the Derby field. Unfortunately, the Breeders’ Cup proved to be the high mark for the colt, last seen finishing up the track in the UAE Derby.

If nothing else, Santa Anita-based Bob Baffert could be relied upon to send something live to the Derby, given the fact that he began the season with a cohort of promising colts. They won the Robert Lewis, the Southwest, the Sunland Derby, and hit the board in many more. But by late April they had fallen away like so many autumn leaves.

Goldencents, winner of the Santa Anita Derby and the Sham Stakes, is the last one standing. And yes, that’s Doug O’Neill holding the shank along with the hopes of anyone vaguely connected to the prestige of California racing.

“After the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile we thought we might have two,” O’Neill said. “Obviously Baffert had a strong hand, and Holendorfer’s horse looked like he was coming into his own at the right time. Then the injury bug hit, and we know that just happens.”

It happened to O’Neill with Merv Griffin’s talented Stevie Wonderboy, winner of the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park and champion of his division. After finishing second to Brother Derek in his 3-year-old debut, the 2006 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, Stevie Wonderboy fractured an ankle in a workout at Hollywood Park and never raced again.

“It’s an honor to be the solo surviving California participant this year,” O’Neill said this week in Kentucky. “Hopefully we can bring the hardware back to the West Coast. I’ve got a feeling, though, that there might be some people in California not exactly rooting for me.”

This qualifies as understatement. For all his success, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories last year of I’ll Have Another, O’Neill has become a lightning rod of attention after the heightened media scrutiny of the 2012 Triple Crown. Fair or not, O’Neill’s record of medication violations was put under a microscope and subjected to various degrees of analysis. While he did not shy away from his record, O’Neill was particularly wounded by anonymous comments from West Coast colleagues in major publications. It’s no fun being scorned in your own backyard.

In O’Neill’s case, the best answer has been winning, which is what Goldencents seems capable of doing if he and Derby rookie Kevin Krigger can find some kind of comfort zone heading into the Derby’s key first turn. O’Neill can’t do anything about racing luck, any more than he can change some of the headlines surrounding the 2012 Triple Crown. Instead, he turns to his horse and finds peace of mind.

He’s been so settled in here and relaxed, but with every bit of his normal energy when he’s out there on the track,” O’Neill said. “He’s acting real strong and full of himself. I love the way he recovers quickly back at the barn after training.”

Winning Derbies back to back has been done before – most recently in 1997-98 by Baffert – but O’Neill knows how high the odds are stacked. Then he looks at Goldencents and says, “Everything we saw back in California we’re seeing here.” That could be enough to get the job done.