Horse Trainer ‘Drug’ O’Neill Has Plenty of Company
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The affable man with the horse that may become the first Triple Crown winner in more than a generation can’t seem to outrun his unflattering nickname: “Drug” O’Neill.
But Doug O’Neill is far from the only trainer in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with a history of improperly medicated horses. The Associated Press reviewed the histories of all 11 trainers with horses in the race and found that 10 had at least one violation of medication regulations set by state racing boards.
O’Neill has been under the most scrutiny because his colt, I’ll Have Another, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and is the 4-5 favorite to add the Belmont and complete the first Triple Crown in 34 years.
“We had the black cloud before he won the Derby,” D. Wayne Lukas, the elder statesman among trainers, said of horse racing’s drug problems. “Now it’s just gotten darker.”
Lukas, who will run 20-1 Optimizer in the Belmont, didn’t mention his own record. He has had almost as many violations as O’Neill, though spanning a longer career with a larger stable and including none in the last 13 years.
That’s something Penny Chenery, the doyenne of the sport and owner of the great Triple Crown champion Secretariat, apparently didn’t realize when she told The Atlantic magazine that I’ll Have Another’s owner, J. Paul Reddam,”should be embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record.”
In fact, only one trainer in the Belmont has a clean record – Kelly Breen, whose horse, My Adonis, was a last-minute entry. Five of the others have had a single violation, typically for medications commonly used either to control inflammation or to prevent internal bleeding while racing. Their use is legal only within bounds.
AP’s review included hundreds of rulings from state racing commissions collected by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which represents the sport’s regulators. The majority of violations were unrelated to medications; improper paperwork was common, and there were a few for profane tirades as well.
O’Neill shrugs off his nickname and denies the behavior it implies.
“Not good,” he said when asked how it makes him feel. “But it just happens that my name rhymes with that.
“You can say whatever you want. I know at the end of the day I love my horses and I take great care of my horses.”
For the 11 Belmont trainers, AP found 64 medication violations in the association’s database, which is regarded as the industry’s most comprehensive. The database did not include two violations O’Neill had in California for elevated levels of carbon dioxide in his horses’ blood. Adding those two, O’Neill had 17 rulings against him dating to 1997.
Only the two biggest names in the sport, Lukas and Bob Baffert, were anywhere close to that number. According to the association’s data, Baffert actually had more, with 20, and Lukas had 15.
Dale Romans, who will saddle second-choice Dullahan, had five violations, four of them for improper administration of commonly used medications. His most recent were two violations three years ago in Florida. Ken McPeek, the only trainer with two horses in Saturday’s race, had four violations, the last a positive test for the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in Illinois in 2005.
The five trainers with one violation were Manuel Azpurua, Chad Brown, Michael Matz, Dominick Schettino and Doodnauth Shivmangal.
One longtime testing official who reviewed O’Neill’s violations record for AP said he didn’t find it particularly egregious.
“There are a lot of people in racing that have records similar to his,” said Richard Sams, director of the HFL Sport Science Laboratory, the official testing lab for Kentucky and Virginia’s racing commissions. “He’s getting a lot of attention right now obviously because he has the horse to beat.”
The amounts that state boards fined Baffert and Lukas were much lower than O’Neill’s total, generally reflecting the more routine nature of most of the violations. Lukas was assessed $500, Baffert $5,800 – and O’Neill $32,550.
Lukas did, however, have one of the most serious violations – a positive test for the narcotic painkiller oxymorphone – more than 30 years ago. And Baffert – who trains Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister but will run 8-1 shot Paynter on Saturday – got in trouble in 2001 after one of his horses tested positive for morphine. He blamed contaminated feed.
Baffert said the case was dismissed.
“If a trainer has a big barn, things are going to mess up,” he said. “It’s mainly mistakes.”
While Lukas was last cited in 1999, and Baffert’s horses have been relatively problem free in recent years, O’Neill’s violations have been stacking up.
His latest troubles are particularly ill timed.
Just last month, the California Horse Racing Board decided to suspend him 45 days, starting after the Belmont, because one of his horses had elevated carbon dioxide levels in its blood. High carbon dioxide levels reflect a change in blood chemistry that is believed to help a horse combat fatigue by limiting lactic acid buildup.
While California’s board didn’t rule that O’Neill intentionally doctored the levels – typically done by feeding the horse a “milkshake” of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes – the authorities concluded that because O’Neill is responsible for the care of his horses, he should be punished. Along with the suspension, he was fined $15,000. The horse finished eighth.
O’Neill vigorously fought the most recent charges, and still can appeal. It was the third time California’s board sanctioned him for an elevated carbon dioxide level in the past several years, to go with one in Illinois in 2010.
This year, New York state racing regulators reinstated a rule that horses in the Belmont be housed in a “detention barn” where their diets and medicines are strictly monitored. The explanation: They want to ensure that the race is run with clean horses.
Some trainers worry the change of scenery will upset their horses, and have bristled at the rule. Not O’Neill, whose comments have been, as usual, public-image savvy.
“I like the thought of showing the general public that all the horses are in the same locker room,” he told reporters. “The transparency that our game probably lacks is key.”
O’Neill has said all of his violations were for “therapeutic medications” in excess of allowable limits, not for banned drugs.
That is debatable, according to Sams, the testing lab official.
“I think from his point of view, he sees everything as something to help the horse – and in his mind that is therapeutic,” Sams said. “I think racing regulators see things a bit differently than he sees them, and with reason.”
Sams specifically cited findings of the anti-inflammatory drugs etodolac and naproxen in O’Neill-trained horses as examples of drugs that are generally prohibited in the sport.
Not everyone was quick to indict.
“I don’t think that anything Doug has done is on purpose, and if it’s happened it’s probably been for some silly reason,” McPeek said.
Lukas called O’Neill a “good horseman” who wouldn’t do anything illegal but said the problem is the perception “that horse wasn’t perfect in the first two legs.”
“That is a ridiculous assumption,” he said. “Just that perception will be a black eye. People will say, `Well, they’ve cleaned it up and now he got beat.’ That’s a terrible assumption.”
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