The Kentucky Derby-winning trainer highlights the problems in the way the racing industry reacts to doping accusations.
QUARTER POLE-English Proverb
As much as I would like to again see a Triple Crown winner in Thoroughbred racing, as much as I think the sport could so use a boost these dark days, I will not be rooting for I'll Have Another this Saturday afternoon in the 137th Preakness Stakes at Maryland's Pimlico Race Course. And I'd like to tell you why.
I have nothing against the horse, of course. He ran a great Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and was a worthy winner over the breathlessly game Bodemeister. And I have nothing, either, against I'll Have Another's jockey, Mario Gutierrez, whose rags-to-riches story is one of the best of the year. If they win again, and have a chance for a Triple Crown in three weeks at Belmont Park in New York, here's hoping that Gutierrez is every bit as much a part of the story as his horse.
But I'm not rooting for I'll Have Another because I am not a fan of trainers whose drug suspensions are endlessly stayed. I am not a fan of track officials and state regulators who slap wrists. I am not a fan of owners who tolerate it. And I am not a fan of an industry that allows all of this to occur and then turns to the betting public and its fans says "we are doing what we can about racing integrity." No, sir. Not for me. I'll be rooting for another horse and hoping, as always, that they all make it back home safe to the barn.
Doug O'Neill trains the Derby winner. I had never heard of him before this year's stakes season but I thought he was pitch-perfect on Derby Day itself. The first I heard of his California record was after the Derby. I just stumbled across the news by chance at Ray Paulick's website, PaulickReport, which has been reporting on the story for years (here's a good piece from 2010). Within days of the Derby, the story had migrated from inside the industry to the mainstream media. Joe Drape and Walt Bogdanich at the New York Times, with another trenchant piece, wrote this last Thursday as their lede:
Last summer, the trainer Doug O'Neill was formally sanctioned after one of his racehorses at Hollywood Park in California tested positive for illegal drugs. A year before, in 2010, O'Neill was punished for administering an illegal performance-enhancing concoction to a horse he ran in the prestigious Illinois Derby -- the third time he had been accused of giving a horse what is known as a milkshake. Four months later, he was accused again of giving a milkshake to a horse in California.
Over 14 years and in four different states, O'Neill received more than a dozen violations for giving his horses improper drugs. O'Neill's horses also have had a tendency to break down. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the horses he trains break down or show signs of injury at more than twice the rate of the national average.
The point I want to make here is a relatively small one in the context of what this means. Whether O'Neill is guilty or not of the pending violation, there is no excuse for these sorts of suspensions to linger unresolved for years. We are told that O'Neill faces a possible 180-day suspension--for a test that occurred in August 2010. His answer? "I swear on my kids' eyes i never milkshaked a horse," O'Neill said last week. Because regulators and judges in California couldn't resolve the case sooner, a local problem became an international one in the middle of racing's Triple Crown. For the want of a nail...
Can you imagine any professional sport or enterprise tolerating such a delay between the announcement of an offense and the disposition of one? There is an entire class of trainers, in both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing, whose members go about their daily jobs under suspended sentences--in legal limbo but free to make a living, earn more purse money, and create the kind of gash marks on the sport that O'Neill's case has created over the past two weeks.
Perhaps the best way to describe this dynamic is to think of it as one giant industry-sanctioned bail/bond program. The suspects get to go on with their lives while evidence of their alleged crime is debated languidly. The logic is both clear and perverse. Even though the fines are miniscule compared to the purse money, trainers like O'Neill won't accept punishment until their rights are fully adjudicated. It takes forever for those rights to be adjudicated under the current system. And because it takes so long, regulators and judges are loathe to preclude suspects from earning a living in the meantime.
Know what horse racing needs? It needs its own Drug Court--an independent body which can quickly adjudicate doping disputes. It needs an enforcement mechanism by which the current model--where overburdened, understaffed regulators hand off trainer doping cases to overburdened, understaffed state judges--gives way to something faster and stronger. A trainer wants to appeal a suspension? Fine. The industry should guarantee that trainer a right to a "speedy" disposition. In return, the industry should demand the trainer's purse money be held in escrow pending the outcome.
The O'Neill story indeed puts horse racing into a terrible bind. On the one hand, the industry surely wants to see "I'll Have Another" win the Preakness to keep alive a Triple Crown hope for the year (the last horse to win was Affirmed in 1978). But on the other hand the industry surely understands that the hotter the spotlight shines on O'Neill the more it will expose the inherent contradictions and consistent failures of the sport's drug enforcement policies and priorities.
The idea that a Triple Crown-winner trainer could shortly thereafter be suspended from racing for 180 days is even worse than is the idea that The Times is doing stories in mid-May about horse doping. It will be interesting to see, therefore, how NBC handles the O'Neill story when it covers the big race on Saturday. Surely the network cannot bury the controversy. Nor can it highlight it. But wouldn't it be a great gift to the sport if the broadcast team were to shine a light on racing's inability to timely convict or exonerate its suspected cheaters? Surely Costas and company would have no dearth of interviewees.
The scandal here, if there is one, isn't just that a Derby-winning trainer has a mixed record and current legal headaches. The scandal here is that the industry has treated O'Neill no differently than thousands of other suspected trainers, jockeys and drivers over the past decades. I understand the presumption of innocence as much as the next fellow. But there is a difference between protecting that presumption and living up to the responsibility that racing participants have toward one another--and toward the public. The sooner the industry bridges this gulf, the stronger it will be.
THE FINAL FURLONG
Oh, yes. The race! I like to watch the Preakness (All Hail Kegasus!) more than the Derby itself because there are fewer horses and thus fewer chances for accidents or bad racing luck. The luckiest Derby winners often are exposed in the Preakness. This year, only 11 horses entered the second-leg of the Triple Crown. Bodemeister is back, as a somewhat surprising morning-line favorite, and so is my sentimental Derby pick, Creative Cause, whose 71-year-old trainer Michael Harrington just saddled his first-ever Derby entry.
And so is Went The Day Well. Here's how Drape and Bogdanich, in their Times piece, compared O'Neill's record with the record of Went The Day Well's trainer, Graham Motion:
All of a sudden, a Triple Crown winner this year doesn't seem that great, does it? I didn't think so.
Nationally, thoroughbred horses break down or show signs of injury at a rate of 5.1 per thousand starts, according to the Times's analysis of more than 150,000 races over the past three years. In more than 2,300 starts, horses trained by O'Neill show a breakdown or injury frequency more than double that rate, at 12.0 per thousand starts.
"It's a horrible statistic to be associated with," O'Neill said.
In comparison, horses in the care of Motion -- one of the trainers without a single drug violation and who will race Went the Day Well in the Preakness Stakes next Saturday -- have started nearly 1,900 races and broken down or showed signs of injury in just 0.5 per thousand start
For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.