Horse racing: Doug O’Neill taking a shot with 2 horses in Pacific Classic
DEL MAR — Many of the so-called “experts” might think trainer Doug O’Neill has lost his mind, running a pair of horses against Arrogate, Collected and Accelerate on Saturday in Del Mar’s $1 million Pacific Classic.
But remember this – O’Neill’s the same “crazed” man who has won two Kentucky Derbies, once won a record five races in one afternoon at this seaside track and has developed five Eclipse Award champions since breaking out on his own in 1994.
In other words, the 49-year-old native of Dearborn, Mich., is crazy. Crazy like a fox.
“For a million dollars and in our own backyard, it’s worth taking a shot,” O’Neill said on the telephone Thursday morning while supervising a string of horses at Los Alamitos.
Especially when Arrogate, thought to be invincible after four consecutive Grade I victories, threw in a clunker in his return from Dubai on July 22. Folks are wondering if a distaste for a tiring but safe main track at Del Mar might leave the even-money favorite vulnerable on Saturday in a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 4.
Like the rest of us, O’Neill was stunned by Arrogate’s fourth-place finish in the Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar when the 4-year-old Unbridled’s Song colt was beaten by 15¼ lengths.
“We’d never seen that out of him,” O’Neill said. “He’s always tried so hard and been so dominating. It made you realize that even the great ones are not machines and they can have their bad days like humans do. We’re hoping he has a safe trip (Saturday), but another flop would be good for us.”
O’Neill’s two Pacific Classic entries already have a leg up on Arrogate in that they’ve shown they like Del Mar’s deep track. Donworth, 15-1 on the morning line, goes in after running second in the San Diego Handicap to Accelerate, and Curlin Road (20-1) just won the Grade III Cougar II Handicap by a nose under Flavien Prat on July 26.
O’Neill acknowledges both horses are longshots Saturday, but he made a case for both two days before the Grade I event.
“I think (Donworth’s) race in the San Diego really tightened him up for this,” he said. “I just think a fit, healthy Donworth has a chance. He’s a horse that’s always showed a Grade I type of talent. He’s just been plagued by little injuries here and there. I think a good, clean trip, and if he moves forward, which I think he will off that race, I think he could shock the world.”
Of Curlin Road, O’Neill says: “He’s got a win over the track and he’s come back and worked really well. Prat is such a great rider. I think having Prat, having a horse that likes the track … distance won’t be a problem of course … I think he’s worth a look for sure.”
O’Neill said Arrogate’s effort in the San Diego Handicap was a major factor in deciding to run his two horses in Del Mar’s signature race.
“It’s huge,” he said. “Here’s a horse that wins the Dubai World Cup … and then to kind of flop (here). Watching him struggle over the surface definitely made this race more intriguing for sure as opposed to if he had romped like he had in the past. As much as we like it (track), and maybe he doesn’t, it kind of evens up the playing field.”
But O’Neill expects Arrogate to rebound with a strong showing Saturday.
“He’s surrounded by such top people,” he said. “They wouldn’t run him if they didn’t think they had the kinks worked out. I’m sure they’re probably going to change strategies a little bit riding-wise, so I’m expecting he’s going to come back in a big way, but hopefully one of ours or both of ours can run with him.”
Pacific Classic Day is the type of big afternoon that makes all the hard work and early mornings worthwhile.
“Just because you know the stands are going to be full, just the energy is going to be at the top of any day of the meet,” O’Neill said. “You know there’s a million-dollar prize waiting for everybody if you get lucky, so it’s definitely one that you live for when you work around these beautiful horses and you have even an outside chance.”
An outside chance is all O’Neill asks for.
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