The horse, of course, is that golden scents-sniffing, purse-sensitive performer, Goldencents, who runs his best when the stakes are highest. After finishing second in the Champagne to eventual two-year-old champion,Shanghai Bobby, O’Neill showed uncommon sense in bypassing the BC Juvenile (and its Lasix prohibition) and shipping to the Delta Jackpot to continue putting some foundation into his colt despite the Jackpot’s losing its win-and-you’re-in status under CDI’s new eligibility rules.
The now confirmed two-turner became a bullet-working sensation this winter at Santa Anita. Trainer Bob Baffert regularly works his better horses in 1:11 and change and seems to get results in the afternoon; at least from those that can withstand such rigorous conditioning. In perusing past performances for the initial HRI Derby Poll, I noticed that Goldencents had not one, but two works in 1:10 and a few ticks -- not O’Neill’s normal tactics -- suggesting he’s a horse that loves to run.
The San Felipe made doubters out of many Goldencents admirers when he succumbed in a speed duel with the Baffert-trained Flashback that allowed a new star to enter the frame, the fast-closing Hear The Ghost trained by Jerry Hollendorfer.
Then came the controversial installation of heightened Santa Anita Derby security. Hollendorfer was one of the adamantly opposed. Think what you will but once the proposal was accepted, Hear The Ghost disappeared from the Derby Trail in almost the same manner O’Neill’s I’ll Have Another departed last year’s Triple Crown pursuit after increased Belmont Stakes security.
To be fair, however, there were I'll Have Another's physical issues that were treated with the use of a magnetic blanket.
Prior to Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, both Baffert and O’Neil worked on changes to their charges’ running styles. What’s more, Flashback’s stablemate, Super Ninety Nine, would be available as a rabbit after revealing hia limitations in Arkansas. Ostensibly, the plan would be to burn out the impatient Goldencents with Super Ninety Nine, setting up a victory by a restrained Flashback guided by new go-to guy, Garrett Gomez.
Instead, the Baffert pair encountered a more tractable Goldencents.
If O’Neill wins another Triple Crown event this year, he will probably join Baffert and Pletcher in the ranks of sought-after TC trainers. Baffert has nine horses with accumulated points of which two are already qualified. Two more could still qualify. Further, there are others without Derby points he could enter in the last two win-and-you’re-in preps.
Meanwhile, Pletcher has six horses with points – two already qualified with two others nearing the horizon. It is doubtful Pletcher would enter any more point-less runners as his two qualified are among the anticipated betting favorites. O’Neill had a second horse with points but lightning didn’t strike twice for owner Paul Reddam and jockey Gutierrez.
Team O’Neill can handle an upturn in business if required. Brother Dennis functions as a bargain-basement version of Barry Irwin and was responsible for claiming Lava Man prior to that champion’s stakes campaigns, and for acquiring I’ll Have Another and Goldencents.
It would be interesting to see what he comes up with if he got money thrown at him at the same rate Pletcher and Baffert have come to expect.
What may have done the most damage to O’Neill’s image last year was the death of the claimer Burna Dette, shipped to Los Alamitos and dropped severely in price only to break down on the track.
This year, Baffert suffered a similar fate when a former graded stakes winner named Tweebster was dropped in for a claim at Santa Anita. Both trainers, it should be noted, have used the mega-drop strategy successfully in the past.
O’Neill’s equanimity under duress is almost always accompanied by an enthusiasm that has eluded Baffert since suffering his unfortunate heart attack. Any excitement Pletcher exhibits to the media often requires visual enhancement.
In any event, the new day of Derby eligibility that some expected to adversely affect the high-profile, high-volume trainers appears to have actually improved their results thus far.
And it indeed looks as if this year’s Derby field will be the one of the most competitive ever! Imagine what an increase in the number of trainers with multiple Derby starters would bring?