Separating fact from fiction over I'll Have Another's trainer

Doug O’Neill, the trainer for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, has been a subject of speculation regarding ‘doping’ horses. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Doug O’Neill, the trainer for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, has been a subject of speculation regarding ‘doping’ horses. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: June 05, 2012

THERE IS LITTLE middle ground on drugs in horse racing or Doug O’Neill, the man who trains the horse that won the first two-thirds of the Triple Crown. In a perfect world, there would be no drugs, legal or illegal, in horse racing and O’Neill would have a spotless record. It is not a perfect world.

So is O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, a man who has gone from the bottom of the sport to the top by hard work or by living on the edge? The answer is probably some of both, but it is not the answer most want to hear. This society does not do nuance anymore. We want easy answers to difficult questions and facts have become collateral damage in a world of opinions that are formed in an instant and rarely change.

Nobody can say with certainty that O’Neill "dopes" horses. It is a classic black/white argument in a murky world of gray. Anybody who has ever researched horse racing drug rules and the way they are adjudicated knows they are complex and confusing. If you think cheats are everywhere, you think the system is too lenient, that penalties don’t meet offenses. If, however, you are a horse trainer, you want to protect your rights in a byzantine system.

In case anybody is still interested, here are some facts to consider. I went over each of the 25 "violations" on O’Neill’s record since the start of 2005, including the now famous four cases where his horses had an excess level of carbon dioxide. Given that the sport is just now starting to get more accurate records, I can’t swear to the accuracy of everything I found, but I think it’s close enough to get a picture.

First, what is the purpose of the TCO2 test that measures the level of carbon dioxide in a horse’s bloodstream? Supposedly, horses with elevated levels have been given what is called a "milkshake," a concoction with some baking soda, sugar and water that is supposed to reduce the buildup of lactic acid that causes muscle fatigue in horses. "Milkshaking" was declared against the rules several years ago.

O’Neill has had four horses go over the limit. He says he never "milkshaked" any horses. The tests appear to suggest that somebody did or that there is some other way to get an excess level in a horse’s bloodstream.

If O’Neill was trying to cheat in these cases, he was not very effective.

Wisdom Cat tested positive after a race at Hollywood Park in May 2006. The horse was 48-1 and finished eighth of eight.

Chicks Rule was over the limit after a race at Santa Anita in January 2008. The horse won at 3-1, a performance consistent with her two previous races.

Stephen’s Got Hope was positive after running in the 2010 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. The horse finished seventh, beaten by more than 22 lengths.

Argenta turned up with an overage after an August 2010 race at DelMar. She finished a never-in-it eighth at odds of 20-1.

If, in fact, milkshakes keep horses from getting tired, they are certainly performance-enhancers. But the performances of these four horses were certainly not enhanced.

The TCO2 test in California had just been developed when O’Neill got that initial result, so specific penalties were not yet in force. He got a $7,500 fine and a 30-day suspension (eventually stayed) for Chicks Rule and a $1,000 fine and 15-day suspension for Stephen’s Got Hope. He appealed the Argenta positive because he knew there was a possibility of a 6-month suspension.

A few days after the Preakness, it was ruled that Argenta was a positive, but there was no evidence of milkshaking. O’Neill was given a 45-day suspension and a $15,000 fine, which he can appeal. Regardless of how a potential appeal turns out, O’Neill would not serve the suspension until sometime after Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

The 28-page California Horse Racing Board decision, after seven separate hearings into the Argenta matter, was a fascinating mix of science and law. Even though it was concluded O’Neill did not milkshake Argenta, it was determined he was "negligent" that some combination of factors under his control contributed to the carbon dioxide overage. It was also revealed that the other two horses that tested highest that particular day were also O’Neill horses. The odds of that happening randomly, according to the hearing officer, were 41,684-1.

O’Neill has been fined a total of $3,500 for 14 versions of a racing summary offense, including submitting a false scratch card at Hollywood Park, not reporting that a horse had been gelded, getting a horse too late to the receiving barn, entering an ineligible horse necessitating a late scratch, bringing a horse to the paddock without a tattoo at Parx Racing and failure to have registration papers for a horse at Penn National.

The other eight violations were for a variety of therapeutic medications that are not supposed to be in a horse’s system on raceday. They resulted in $4,400 in fines. Two of the horses had a career-best effort on the days in question. Four ran about how they figured to run. One ran marginally better and one ran terrible.

There has been no finding of inhumane pain blockers or any of the really horrible stuff that should get any trainer who does it ruled off for life.

Horse racing is far from perfect. If it were up to me, all drugs, legal and illegal, would be barred. But I am not a trainer or a vet and don’t pretend to understand all the complications here.

Anybody who thinks it was better years ago is wrong. Cheating was more rampant because there were no tests or they were ineffective. I have had more than a few people tell me about trainers who would put cocaine on a horse’s tongue before a race.

If I’ll Have Another wins the Triple Crown, I will see no taint. The horse has run brilliantly all season and tested positive for nothing.

Do I understand why some are rooting against the horse because of O’Neill’s issues? I get that. I also get that everybody wants a level playing field and that trainers with no violations often do not get that.

Is this sport a mess with rules changing from state to state and other rules being made up as we go? Absolutely. Could it use a commissioner? No doubt.

I’ll Have Another has been running with a nasal strip, similar to the strip some athletes use. The New York stewards have long disallowed the strips and won’t make an exception for I’ll Have Another, saying they have no way of informing the public. That is a bit disingenuous as the public is not informed of other equipment, including tongue ties and shadow rolls. The strips are legal at New York harness racing tracks, but I’ll Have Another will not be wearing the strip in the Belmont Stakes.

Last week, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board changed rules just for the Belmont Stakes, announcing that all the horses have to be in a "secure" stakes barn after they are entered on Wednesday. So, trainers suddenly had to adjust their plans. Michael Matz may have wanted to keep Union Rags at his Fair Hill (Md.) Training Center barn until race day. Now, he can’t.

If you read the new rules, it sounds like it is a complete lockdown. It also feels completely paranoid and an overreaction by a bunch of bureaucrats who have little understanding of the sport they are administering. If you don’t think this has everything to do with the scrutiny that O’Neill is under, you really don’t understand public relations. It is also true that if I’ll Have Another wins the Triple Crown, nobody will be able to say there was cheating in the Belmont Stakes.

O’Neill has started nearly 10,000 horses in his career. He has admittedly made more than a few mistakes. How bad the mistakes were depend on your point of view and your willingness to look beyond the headlines.

O’Neill has won 28 training titles at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Fairplex, three Breeders’ Cup races and major international races in Dubai and Japan. His $50,000 claim Lava Man swept the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic in 2006 on the way to more than $5 million in earnings.

If you look closely at four of O’Neill greatest claims (Lava Man, Fleetstreet Dancer, Informed and Willyconker), you will certainly notice dramatic improvement after he got them. Lava Man’s improvement was immediate after the claim and continued through 5 amazing years. Fleetstreet Dancer was claimed for $40,000, showed great improvement a month later and held his form for 13 months, culminating with a win in the $2.2 million Japan Cup Dirt. Informed was claimed for $25,000, got gradually better and won the Californian Stakes a year later. Willyconker was claimed for $40,000 last August and won the Grade I Kilroe Mile 6 months later.

In this rush-to-judgment world, facts often don’t count for much so we feel obligated to decide even when all the information does not lead to any obvious conclusion. The bottom line is that when the horse you train is going for the sport’s Holy Grail and you have a less-than-pristine background, you will get scrutinized and people will think what they want to think. n

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com

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