Horse trainer Doug O’Neill is ‘roasted’

By Leslie Carter

Trainer Doug O’Neill has scaled the heights in thoroughbred horse racing over the years and has been a headliner at Del Mar many times.

He’s a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer (I’ll Have Another in 2012). He has won the training title at the Del Mar meet four times. He has trained four Eclipse Award champions — those are the year-end Oscars for the sport. And he did bring back Richard’s Kid to win his second Cougar II Handicap on July 26.

He’s the trainer for the Great Friends Stable, and a great friend of the Foundation of the same name. O’Neill has vulnerabilities. There could still be a bit of bad feeling in some quarters over the moving of two-time Pacific Classic winner Richard’s Kid from another star trainer’s barn to O’Neill’s after the sudden sale of the horse last summer.

You would need only some of the fingers of one hand to count his visits to the winner’s circle over the first three weeks of the season, and the trainer wasn’t allowed to forget it. And what was that “milkshake” thing that kept cropping up?

How surprising could it be that in the Great Friends’ search for a racing season fundraiser, (that earned $25,000) there was this lightbulb that flashed the idea: “Let’s roast Doug O’Neill?”

The dining room of the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club seated 160 Great Friends on Saturday, Aug. 3. The dais was loaded with familiar personalities attached to the thoroughbred world.

Among the talent assembled was Joe Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a skilled and experienced roaster. Relaying the proceedings would require many symbols (##!#??) representing words you would rather not see in print.

There was lots of laughter but there was also moaning and groaning to indicate that the room was with O’Neill. “I do notice that there are some people in here this evening that are not from the horse racing community. Just ask the table next to you when you don’t understand one of the jokes. They will interpret for you,” said Scott Kaplan, one of the event hosts.

The Great Friends Foundation’s commitment reads “Serving those who serve San Diego,” especially firefighters, police officers, military personnel and their families. The founders are two local guys, Kaplan and Billy Ray Smith (a Del Mar resident), now of the Mighty 1090’s Scott and BR Show.

At midpoint in the event, there was a live auction to educate kids who, according to Kaplan, “will become the future leaders of America.” Their program awards $5,000 a year for four years to selected college-bound children of these first responders.

Artist Erik Skoldberg, who has a gallery at the Del Mar Plaza, made a big splash at the event. He displayed an imposing painting reproducing the Official Program from the July 1939 racing season. He has created two editions of this work. One is in the Turf Club at Del Mar, and the second, brought in $7,000 at auction.

Skoldberg offered three more of the same colorful painting for anyone else at the auction at $7,000 each (gallery price $7,500), and to return 10 percent to the Great Friends Foundation. Skoldberg also won the bidding with $4,000 for a luncheon for six at Pamplemousse Grille and three nights for two at the Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa — a stay that includes a couple’s massage.

When Trevor Denman took the microphone to do his turn, he expressed dismay at being asked to say mean things about “Doug O’Neill, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.” He tried to get out of it with “I’m a vegetarian, we don’t do roasts.”

So “nice Trevor” was followed by “mean Trevor” in the person of Frank Mirahmadi, a talented impressionist who had Trevor’s South African accent down pretty well. Mirahmadi calls races at Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and on the California fair circuit. His “mean Trevor” sizzled.

The evening ended with milkshakes distributed for dessert. If you want to know the significance of that — ask someone you know that follows horse racing.