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.
Trainer gets suspended for doping horse. Trainer appeals suspension. Trainer gets stay of suspension pending appeal. Trainer and lawyer undertake administrative hearing. Regulators take their time to rule. Ruling gets appealed to state court. Hearing is held. Judge takes her time to rule. This happens every day in North American horse racing and it's what is happening in the O'Neill case. If he is guilty, he should long ago have been forced to serve his punishment. If he is not, because of California's testing protocols, then that system itself should long ago have been fixed.