Familiar Faces Return to Pimlico with Team O’Neill

December 10, 2019

Nyquist Camp Looks to Duplicate 2012 Preakness Success

BALTIMORE - Four years after his first Preakness victory, trainer Doug O’Neill and a very familiar crew are back at Pimlico Race Course with another Kentucky Derby winner. About the only noticeable change is the horse. In 2012, it was I’ll Have Another. This year’s star for the May 21 Preakness Stakes is Nyquist.

Beyond that, most of the names and the faces are the same: owner J. Paul Reddam, O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, assistant trainer Jack Sisterson, exercise rider Jonny Garcia, equine therapist Tyler Cerin. In a sport with many moving parts and where changing personnel is common, O’Neill’s staff is very stable.

“I can honestly say this is really unique,” Reddam said in the aftermath of Nyquist’s 1 ¼-length victory in the 142nd Derby. “There are a lot of folks here who were with I’ll Have Another. You can see that the people really enjoy their job and most importantly they trust one another.”

While other successful trainers have long-serving staff members, O’Neill’s barn is built on continuity.

“He has a very high level of confidence in each of his folks,” Reddam said. “As they’ve had more success, their confidence has grown more and that has been really helpful, so the barn is not a one-man band. When he talks about Team O’Neill, that’s a lot of cliché crap, but that’s actually how it is. He really deserves high marks for that.”

Sisterson, 31, was in charge of shipping Nyquist and seven other runners from Louisville to Baltimore on Monday and setting up O’Neill’s Pimlico division in Barn D. He grew up around horses in Durham, England, came to the U.S. to play soccer at the University of Louisville and is in his fifth year with O’Neill. When he signed on, Sisterson knew very little about O’Neill and the atmosphere that is such an important element of his organization.

“We’re all on a level playing field when it comes to positions and titles, from the hotwalkers to Doug himself,” Sisterson said. “He comes in in the morning and it’s a fist bump and it’s a ‘good morning’ and ‘do you guys need anything?’ He makes himself very approachable, but with a lot of bosses you’re afraid to say anything to them. Things are going to happen that Doug needs to know about. Other employees may be afraid to tell the boss, but Doug is approachable in that aspect. I believe the results really thrive from that. We all really work as a team. We all want each other to know what’s going on. That’s the way we operate.”

Sisterson reports to O’Neill and Leandro Mora, the senior assistant, who has been with the stable for 14 years. While Sisterson may open his own stable some day, a natural progression in racing, he said he is happy with his role on O’Neill’s team. He has a top management position in a high-profile, successful stable.

“I’m in no hurry to leave Doug,” he said. “I’m so fortunate for the opportunity.”

Cerin, 28, is the son of veteran California trainer, Vladimir Cerin, and has been around horses all this life. He helped out in his father’s barn as a kid and began working as a massage therapist when he was in his mid-teens. These days, Cerin operates his own business and has 30 trainers for clients. O’Neill’s stable is a major part of his business. Like he was in 2012, Cerin is on the road with the big horse in O’Neill’s barn. Every day he tends to Nyquist before the colt goes out for his exercise

“It’s just stretching in the morning, like any athlete, like any person before they get out of bed and start their day,” Cerin said. “I stretch them out and make sure they are feeling loose and go out and train.”

Cerin’s focus is on Nyquist and Land Over Sea, the talented filly who is scheduled to run in the Black-Eyed Susan (G2) on May 20, but when time permits he also works on other members of the traveling group. By studying the way the horses move and their body language he identifies musculature problems and uses massage therapy to make them feel better and more effective.

Since he comes from a racing family and works for many trainers, Cerin says that O’Neill has a distinctive approach to the daily business of operating a successful stable.

“I think it starts with Doug and Jack and the way they treat the help and everybody,” he said. “They’re very loyal and they treat everybody like they are a part of the team. Everybody is excited in the morning and happy. Doug really makes you feel like you’re part of the team and he’s happy to have you be a part of the team. We’re fist-pumping every morning and high-fiving just to get the day started. I think everybody feels real happy and that rubs off on the horses. In my opinion, the horses can really sense that. They feel your energy.”

While the horses change from year to year and from one Pimlico visit to the next, O’Neill’s philosophy is consistent and his staff has remained together.

“Yeah, it’s big on team and Doug wants everyone to feel a part,” Sisterson said. “We win as a team and we lose as a team. You walk into the barn and it’s like a locker room. Doug wants to create that atmosphere. Whether it’s back home or here in Baltimore, we keep it that same. We keep it positive and it really feeds off on the horses.”

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