His nervousness had nothing to do with saddling up the Kentucky Derby winner Saturday with the Triple Crown hanging in the balance. O’Neill didn’t care that it was too wet to send I’ll Have Another out on the track, and he certainly wasn’t uneasy about the Preakness coming down to another duel between his horse and Derby pace-setter Bodemeister.
No, the usually laid-back O’Neill was fretting over his assignment Tuesday night at Camden Yards: Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the game between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in my hotel room throwing shampoo bottles at pillows,” he said Tuesday morning. “My biggest thing is not bouncing it. The more people say don’t bounce it, the more likely you will bounce it. I’m just trying to stay focused on throwing it straight and strong and not embarrassing the I’ll Have Another team.”
He did a fine job. Standing in front of the mound, O’Neill peered for an imaginary sign from Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty, who was poised behind the plate. O’Neill then went into an exaggerated windup and unleashed a high pitch that Flaherty snagged after leaping from his crouch.
O’Neill broke a trend by shipping the his horse to Pimlico Race Course just two days after the Derby, and he arrived in town two days after that. Since then, he’s been preparing I’ll Have Another for the Preakness and doing all things Baltimore.
O’Neill watched the Baltimore Ravens rookies practice last weekend and had lunch with coach John Harbaugh. On Monday night, he tried crabs for the first time.
“It’s a lot of work with a mallet. I felt like a carpenter,” O’Neill said. “It was good. We experienced the common food of Baltimore. I think next time I’ll look for the crab cakes. That’s the lazy man’s way of eating crab. Pulling the legs and cracking this and that, it does seem like too much work.”
On the topic of work, O’Neill decided I’ll Have Another didn’t have to do any Tuesday on a wet, dreary morning at Pimlico.
“With I’ll Have Another being as fit as he is and the fact he’s doing so good, we figured the weather forecast is supposed to be nice starting tomorrow, so why take him out there?” O’Neill said. “Like the rest of us, we all like a day off. We gave the whole barn a day off. He looks fantastic.
“You would expect good energy, which he has. We needed a lip chain to keep him on the ground. He was prancing around there. He’s happy. We’ll probably walk him a couple of more times throughout the day. He’ll probably be a little stir crazy without going to the track. I just thought it was the safest, smartest move.”
Since rallying past Bodemeister in the Derby, I’ll Have Another has showed absolutely no sign of fatigue. If the rousing run to the finish took anything out of him, it sure didn’t show in his appetite.
“Every morning we find a clean, licked-up feed tub,” O’Neill said. “He’s a really mellow horse in the stall. He’s a horse that every morning looks like he had a good night’s sleep.”
Many of the horses that ran in the Derby, including Union Rags and Hansen, have opted out of the Preakness. O’Neill, on the other hand, threw I’ll Have Another into the Preakness mix at the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
“You need a special horse to do it,” he said in front of Barn D at Pimlico, the temporary home of I’ll Have Another. “I could see where those guys probably want a little more time to recover. Fortunately, I’ll Have Another has recovered super quickly. It’s still going to be a tough race with Bodemeister and Graham Motion’s horse (Went The Day Well).”
Win or lose, O’Neill won’t soon forget this magical two-week stay in Baltimore — even if he does bounce that first-pitch fastball at Camden Yards.
“The fact we get paid to do something we all love is incredible,” he said. “As friends and family come visit the barn, you can see how they just love the whole environment. We’re enjoying every minute of it. Who knows if we’ll ever be back again with a Derby winner? Hopefully we will be. We are just soaking it all in. We’re so blessed to have a brilliant horse like him.”