02/06/2013 3:42PM

Kentucky Derby: O'Neill hoping to join elite list of repeaters

Benoit & Associates
Sham Stakes winner Goldencents (above) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up He's Had Enough give trainer Doug O'Neill two shots at trying to repeat in the Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby has been run 138 times, but in those years only six times has a trainer been able to win it in consecutive years, and not since Bob Baffert in 1997 and 1998. This year, it will be Doug O’Neill’s turn to try and join a list that, so far, is restricted to “Derby Dick” Thompson, Ben Jones, Jimmy Jones, Lucien Laurin, D. Wayne Lukas, and Baffert, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.

O’Neill won the Derby last year with I’ll Have Another, and now, a little more than three months in front of the 139th Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs, he has two prominent contenders for the race in Goldencents and He’s Had Enough, both of whom are among the 20 horses making up Daily Racing Form's inaugural Derby Watch list for 2013.

O’Neill first got to the Derby in 2007, with Great Hunter and Liquidity, who finished 13th and 14th in the 20-horse field. Both those runners, like I’ll Have Another, were owned by Paul Reddam. O’Neill said the 2007 experience proved invaluable for his team in 2012, and the lessons learned last year will be carried over to future Derby attempts.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list and videos | Who's hot, who's not]

“In 2007, we were high-fiving just being there,” O’Neill said earlier this week. “They belonged in the race, but none of us knew what to expect. We learned that if you bring a fresh horse over there, there’s a chance they could become unglued. You’ve got to be sure they’re fit and tough. You can’t be content just getting there. Don’t be content. Don’t ease up. Do what got you there. We stayed tough on I’ll Have Another all the way up to the race, and it worked out for him.

“I’m sure that 99 percent of it is the horse. But once you’ve got the horse, you can’t let up. You’ve got to train them for a big race. Look at Baffert. He never lets up. That’s why he’s so successful. His horses are battle tested. Hopefully we can do the same thing this year with the one or two that we hope to lead over.”

Winning the Derby, O’Neill said, gave him and his crew the confidence they could do it.

“Winning the Derby – it’s something that seems so far-fetched when you first think about it,” he said. “Doing it really validates the effort the whole barn puts in.”

Goldencents has won three times in four starts, most recently in last month’s Sham Stakes, and is scheduled to make his next start on March 9 in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, a race that also is expected to attract the unbeaten Flashback.

He’s Had Enough is under consideration for the San Felipe, but could head out of town for his next race, with the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16 among those under consideration, O’Neill said.

“I’m going to consult with Mr. Reddam and figure out what to do,” O’Neill said.

He’s Had Enough was a distant third to Flashback last weekend in the Robert Lewis Stakes. He also finished fifth in the CashCall Futurity, but is best known for a runner-up finish behind Shanghai Bobby in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has yet to prove productive. Shanghai Bobby was a good second in the Holy Bull in his lone start since then, but He’s Had Enough is 0 for 2, and Capo Bastone (third), Fortify (fourth), and Power Broker (fifth) have yet to race again.

Dynamic Sky (sixth) won the Pasco at Tampa in his next start, and last weekend was second in the Sam Davis, also at Tampa.

Speak Logistics (seventh) was fourth in the Sam Davis. Title Contender (eighth) was 11th in the CashCall Futurity in his only subsequent start. Monument (ninth and last) was beaten in a stakes restricted to California-breds in his next start.

Combining that with the new points system devised by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field – a system that makes races closer to the Derby far more important than earlier races – the recipe is ripe for late-developing horses to make a far bigger impact this year than in years past. No longer are spots already guaranteed for the winners of rich 2-year-old races like the BC Juvenile and Delta Downs Jackpot.

By contrast, the 2011 BC Juvenile was adjudged to be a strong race; going into the Derby, nine of the 13 horses from that race won stakes in the spring of 2012. Yet the first two spots in the Derby and Preakness were swept by I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, neither of whom ran in the Breeders’ Cup.

That is illustrative of a Derby landscape that is ever-changing – this year with the switch to a points system – and frequently unpredictable. For many trainers, the only comfort at this point is strength in numbers. O’Neill has two of the top 20 on Derby Watch, as do Mark Casse and Lukas. Baffert has three. Todd Pletcher has seven. So, of the 20 horses on the list, 16 are overseen by just five trainers.

But it only takes one. The right one.