06/27/2010 11:00PM

Trainer profile: Doug O'Neill


In many public walks of life, people get pigeonholed into categories, like an actor identified with a certain role and unable to break away. Despite winning more than 20 Southern California training titles, that's become the case for trainer Doug O'Neill - and he couldn't be prouder.

His work with Southern California superstar Lava Man, taking him from a midrange claimer and turning him into one of the most dominant runners the circuit has ever seen, will always be his calling card.

Lava Man is no longer active, but that hasn't prevented O'Neill, 42, from continuing to play a big role among trainers out West. Despite the lack of a "big" horse, O'Neill was leading the Hollywood Park trainer standings entering this week, and he has done it the same way as always -- via the claim and with claimers.

O'Neill may have a hard time winning the title, because he is in the midst of serving a 15-day medication suspension that runs through July 14. O'Neill said that during the suspension he doesn't intend to run any horses.

It was through the claim box that Lava Man came to O'Neill and brought him fame.

Maybe the greatest claim the game has ever seen, Lava Man went to the O'Neill barn for $50,000 in August 2004 at Del Mar. By the time Lava Man was done, he had won more than $5 million and multiple Grade 1's, including the three major handicap races in Southern California. He is the only horse to have posted Grade 1 victories on dirt, turf and synthetic.

O'Neill hasn't been a one-horse trainer, either. He has saddled three Breeders' Cup winners, all champions, in Stevie Wonderboy, Thor's Echo, and Maryfield.

the O'Neill-trained Fleetstreetdancer posted a 48-1 upset in the $2 million Japan Cup Dirt in 2003. Sky Jack overcame four surgeries - two on knees and two for colic -- to win the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup and Grade 2 Mervyn Leroy. To show he's not just some regional hotshot, he has shipped Mistical Plan to Calder to win the Grade 1 Princess Rooney, and Spring at Last to Gulfstream to win the Grade 1 Donn Handicap and to Dubai to win the Group 1 Godolphin Mile. Great Hunter, Avanzado, Classy Cara, Notional, and Estate Collection also won graded stakes for O'Neill away from Southern California.

In fact, in just the past couple seasons O'Neill has branched out, sending a string east and racing at Delaware, Colonial, Charles Town, Mountaineer, Penn National and Philadelphia Park.

It's in the day-to-day grind where O'Neill continues to excel. His success comes in a similar style to that of Steve Asmussen: Both use numbers to their advantage.

Players of Southern California racing fully understand O'Neill's ability up and down the training categories.

As you'd expect, he's strong off the claim (16 percent). His claiming prowess has perhaps led to him being underestimated in other categories such as first-time out (15 percent) and off a layoff (20 percent off a layoff of 180 days or more).

He also knows when to take a chance. He is 23 percent straight maiden to maiden claiming, 17 percent first-time turf, 21 percent first-time blinkers, and 20 percent first-time Lasix. His consistency comes through when you note he's 22 percent on dirt, 14 percent on turf, and 15 percent on synthetics. He's 18 percent sprinting and 15 percent routing, and distance changes have been solid both ways as well - 12 percent sprint-to-route, 17 percent route-to-sprint.

O'Neill, born in Dearborn, Mich., went right to the track after finishing high school, learning the trade under the likes of Jude Feld, Hector Palma, Dick Mandella, and Doug Peterson. He took out his trainer's license in 1994 and was able to just plug along for a while. Things turned his way by 1998, and he hasn't stopped since.