Updated on 09/17/2011 11:01AM

For O'Neill, a steady climb to the top


There were afternoons in the mid-1990's when Doug O'Neill found himself 20 feet above the ground, installing cables on telephone poles and dreaming of spending future days as a horse trainer.

Working for his brother's phone company was a living, a way of paying the bills. O'Neill would rise at 5 a.m. to care for a horse or two before dashing off in rush-hour traffic to join the regular work force.

Only in his wildest dreams could O'Neill have envisioned the path his career would take.

When the Del Mar meeting begins on Wednesday, O'Neill will have 60 horses ready; his stable has doubled in the past year. O'Neill, 35, won the training title at the Hollywood Park meeting that ended Sunday. Last year, he won titles at Fairplex and the Hollywood Park fall meeting.

"Telephone work gets real monotonous, working on a pole splicing cable," O'Neill recalled over the weekend in his stable office. "When you have something like this to think about and dream about, it makes your day go by a lot quicker. I kept dreaming: One of these days, I'll be on the ground and not on the pole.

"Climbing telephone poles and hard blue-collar work like that made me realize that if I ever had a chance to do this and get paid well enough to make a living, I should jump on it."

This year, O'Neill's stable is having a breakthrough season - for the second consecutive year. In 2002, he won his richest race, with Sky Jack in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, and finished 37th in the nation with earnings of $3.2 million. Through July 17, his stable was ninth in the nation with earnings of $3,228,426.

The last five months of this year could be equally lucrative. O'Neill has horses booked for major stakes in several races at Del Mar, as well as Excessivepleasure in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 3 and Coax Kid in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park on Aug. 9.

It was three years ago that O'Neill began regularly starting stakes horses. Prior to that, his small stable consisted mostly of claimers. What had started out as a morning diversion from telephone work rapidly developed into a 10-horse stable, thanks to the involvement of owners such as Gary Howard and John Zamora.

Initially, O'Neill still worked for the phone company, owned by his older brother, Danny, but he switched to training after Zamora added horses to the stable.

"That was the beauty of it being Danny's company - I could come and go as I pleased," O'Neill said. "At that point, we were up to eight or 10 and I was able to do some of my own grooming and hotwalking and make it a full-time gig."

But just as things were developing with the racing stable, tragedy struck O'Neill's personal life. Danny O'Neill developed melanoma and died in late 2000.

When Doug O'Neill won the Gold Cup, he was moved to tears in a post-race press conference when he remembered his brother.

Danny O'Neill remains very much on his brother's mind. Doug and his wife, Linette, named their first child Daniel. Attached to Doug's rear-view mirror is his brother's telephone-company identification badge.

Doug is the youngest of four brothers. His oldest brother, Dave, lives in Hawaii, while Dennis remains active in Doug's stable, scouting prospects in sales, helping at Santa Anita, and frequently attending races. Dennis O'Neill also has continued to operate Danny's telephone company, which has 25 employees.

It was Dennis who helped spur Doug's interest in racing. The O'Neill brothers do not come from a racing family, aside from the sporting interest of their father, Pat.

When Dennis bought a share in a horse in the early 1980's, Doug saw the sport up close for the first time.

"He was living at home, making $12 an hour," Doug said of Dennis. "He was rich. Somehow, he bought a horse with Hector Palma. That brought us into the barn area. I was 14 and I thought, Wow. I've always been a subpar athlete - an avid athlete, just not good at it. Seeing the competitiveness back here and how much it relates to other types of sports was fascinating. We were raised watching sports."

Aside from Sky Jack and the two 3-year-olds, O'Neill's top stable members include Cee's Elegance, the winner of the A Gleam Handicap on July 13; Avanzado, the winner of the Palos Verdes Handicap in January; and Banshee King, who starts in Wednesday's fifth race, the first division of the Oceanside Stakes. The addition of clients such as Cees Stable, JMJ Racing, Royce Jaime, David Lanzman, Ty Leatherman, and Pablo Suarez has added depth to the stable.

There are still plenty of claimers on the team. Despite success in the past year, O'Neill won't dismiss that aspect of the sport.

"I love the action," he said. "A lot of these horses that are running for a ton of money; you need to give them time between races. The claimers, you can run back every two or three weeks.

"We look at a couple of claims a day. We probably fill out an actual claim slip four or five times a week."

O'Neill admits his stable will not be as active in the first few weeks of the Del Mar meeting while it recovers from Hollywood Park. Del Mar was hard on O'Neill last year: He won only four races and was not among the top 20.

"It's so tough down there," he said. "People want to see their horses run and win, but they don't want to give them away."

O'Neill's 60-horse stable now employs 30 people, including assistant Leandro Mora. "That will be a big Christmas party," O'Neill said.

By then, there could be even more to celebrate.

The Doug O'Neill File

A glance at the leading members of trainer Doug O'Neill stable, with recent accomplishments and next race goals. The list is presented alphabetically.

o Avanzado, second Dubai Golden Shaheen, Nad al-Sheba; Bing Crosby Breeders Cup Handicap, Saturday.

o Banshee King, won allowance race, Hollywood Park; Oceanside Stakes, Del Mar, Wednesday.

o Blairs Roarin Star, second Hollywood Juvenile, Hollywood Park; Best Pal Stakes, Del Mar, Aug. 17.

o Cee's Elegance, won A Gleam Handicap, Hollywood Park; Rancho Bernardo Handicap, Del Mar, Aug. 23.

o Cherish Destiny, second Landaluce Stakes, Hollywood Park; Sorrento Stakes, Del Mar, Aug. 9.

o Coax Kid, third in 2002 Hollywood Futurity; West Virginia Derby, Mountaineer Park, Aug. 9.

o Excessivepleasure, won Iowa Derby, Prairie Meadows; Haskell Invitational, Monmouth Park, Aug. 3.

o Fleetstreet Dancer, second Mervyn LeRoy Handicap; allowance race Saturday or San Diego Handicap Aug. 3.

o Grant Marty a Wish, won allowance race, Hollywood Park; Daisy Cutter Handicap, Del Mar, Aug.1.

o Sky Jack, won 2002 Hollywood Gold Cup, Hollywood Park; Longacres Mile, Emerald Downs, Aug. 24.