NEW YORK (AP) — Nothing ever comes easy in the nerve-racking weeks before the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line.
Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, is learning just how difficult it is to avoid all the roadblocks as he prepares his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner for a chance to become the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years.
“Welcome to New York,” rival trainer Dale Romans said.
While I’ll Have Another has been a picture of perfection during his morning gallops around Belmont Park, oblivious to what’s going on around him, it’s been one thing after another for Team O’Neill.
Traffic jams. Suspensions. Nasal strips. Visas. Detention barns. Loose horses.
And it’s still nearly a week before the race.
“I’ve been looking under my car every morning before I start it up,” O’Neill kidded.
The 44-year-old trainer shrugs off – at least publicly – the criticism thrown his way for numerous drug and medication violations, including a 45-day suspension issued last week in California. He prefers to accentuate the positive, praising the talent of his chestnut colt and insisting he takes care of his horses as well as any other trainer. The other problems?
“It’s all about the horse. As long as the horse is going great, we’re all doing good,” he said. “If he was battling and then I was getting a lot of stuff from other areas, it would be difficult. As long as he’s doing good, everything else is just talk.”
Even when New York’s racing and wagering board ordered all Belmont horses moved to a detention barn to beef up security beginning Wednesday, O’Neill didn’t take it personally.
“With a horse like I’ll Have Another, you’re under a really strong microscope,” he said. “It’s all just trying to show the public we care for the horses and that when you put your hard-earned money on one of the horses you can know they’re all clean and pure and ready to go.”
I’ll Have Another has been ready to go all year, winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and then the Santa Anita Derby in his Derby preps. Everything was falling into place and I’ll Have Another corralled Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to win the Derby on May 5, and reeled him again in the final strides to win the Preakness on May 19.
Ever since the colt was put on a van to New York the day after the Preakness, though, there have been a number of bumps on the road to the Belmont. Some jarring, others not so much.
A traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike turned a 4 1/2-hour ride from Baltimore to Belmont into a 6 1/2-hour ordeal.
The next day, it was revealed that I’ll Have Another would not be able to wear the nasal strip he wore when he won the Derby and Preakness. New York’s racing stewards prohibit nasal strips, citing issues with how to regulate its use.
O’Neill said the nasal strip is a safe, natural piece of equipment, but will comply with the decision.
I’ll Have Another also went without regular exercise rider Jonny Garcia until a week ago because of visa issues. One of trainer Todd Pletcher’s riders took him out at first, then another O’Neill exercise rider took over until Garcia was granted his license to ride in New York, which came on Tuesday.
A day later, tragedy was avoided by inches. With Garcia aboard I’ll Have Another before a morning gallop, a 3-year-old filly dumped her rider and came “screaming up the outside rail.” Somehow, the loose horse ran between I’ll Have Another and the rail. Garcia said the horse grazed his boot.
“That made my heart skip a beat,” O’Neill said, “but the racing gods must have been looking out for him.”
Even before O’Neill arrived in New York to reunite with I’ll Have Another a week ago, the time he spent back home in California didn’t go so well, either.
On May 24, O’Neill’s birthday, the California Horse Racing Board suspended the trainer for 45 days and fined him $15,000 for exceeding the allowable limit of total carbon dioxide (TCO2), which can enhance performance while reducing fatigue, in one of his horses.
O’Neill insists he runs a clean barn, and says he’s looking forward to the Belmont for more than its historical significance.
“We’ll be running in a situation where you are in a fishbowl, and everyone who has thought negative things about me can realize it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about the horse, and they can watch him leading up to a historical event and hopefully watch him kick butt in a fishbowl.”
Perhaps in reaction to O’Neill’s medication violations, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board stepped in last Tuesday, installing new regulations aimed at protecting the integrity of the Belmont.
There will be tighter security around the detention barn and stricter drug protocols for the race. The changes were announced just over a week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a three-year state takeover of the New York Racing Association, which operates the tracks at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga.
NYRA, meanwhile, is under scrutiny after a series of fatal breakdowns at Aqueduct over the winter, and a scandal in which bettors were overcharged that led to the firings of top NYRA executives.
O’Neill understands the changes, but wonders why the new rules weren’t announced earlier. He’s fine with it, but worries his horse, and others, could be affected by the change of scenery.
“Horses are creatures of habit,” he said. “Each stall has a different smell, feel to it. Now we’re going to have to go over to a different barn. It’s an inconvenience for the horse and the staff, but this horse is unbelievable. He’s the kind of horse who can change stalls every day and he’ll be just fine. I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Romans, who will send out Derby third-place finisher Dullahan in the Belmont, knows all about the stress of training horses for Triple Crown races.
“Everyone wants to get involved and I’m sure he’s in a very stressful situation,” said Romans, who won the 2011 Preakness with Shackleford. “You are under the microscope all the time and you have to answer questions for why you do everything.”
So with all the hurdles O’Neill and his team are trying to clear before I’ll Have Another’s attempt at immortality, how’s the trainer holding up?
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”
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