The Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown, and a Sport's Pivot Point
Horse racing phenom I'll Have Another has more riding on his back than an historic victory.
Whether or not I'll Have Another wins the Belmont Stakes Saturday to win horse racing's sacred Triple Crown, the horse and his trainer, Doug O'Neill, already have transformed the debate over the state of American horse racing. The question now is whether this fire will roar long enough, and generate enough financial and political and regulatory heat, to do any good for the sport. If not, it will be yet another wasted opportunity for the industry, another tragedy for its many purists, no matter what the big colt does this weekend.
MORE ON HORSE RACING
The horse (installed at 4-5 as the morning-line race favorite) cannot be disconnected from O'Neill. And O'Neill cannot be disconnected from all of the self-defeating decisions and trade-offs racing has made over the past 50 years as its popularity has dwindled along with its virtual monopoly on legalized gambling. Like him or not, trust him or not, O'Neill is a living, breathing, walking, talking, charming, self-justifying symbol of the vast swath of gray area the industry is willing to tolerate from its main participants.
His tortuous story of drug suspensions and appeals went national five weeks ago after I'll Have Another's win in the Kentucky Derby. It came just as the industry was coping with the aftermath of a series of revelatory articles in The New York Times. The paper chronicled the systemic failure of regulators and trainers, owners and veterinarians, track officials and jockeys, to do right by their horses. You know the "face" of a story that editors and producers crave when they want to personalize complex news? Fair or not (and it is mostly "not") Doug O'Neill today is that face.
As I write this, ESPN is broadcasting an excellent segment of its show "Outside the Lines" focusing, documentary style, upon the industry's various perceptions of racing integrity. The long piece focuses more upon the Times' groundbreaking work than it does upon O'Neill's situation but it's clear that the news hook-- the reason the piece aired yesterday-- is the Belmont itself. Take the time to watch the whole clip. It's really good:
The segment's conclusions are familiar to anyone who has been paying attention (lately or otherwise) to the health of the sport: 1) The industry doesn't police itself well enough to be trusted, 2) state regulators don't police the sport much at all, 3) legislators won't care until they are lobbied to do so, 4) industry leaders refuse to cede control over their respective fiefdoms for the common good, and 5) the horses ultimately are the ones who bear the brunt of the problem.
This is what the sport lacks. What does it need? It needs centralized drug rules and national enforcement. It needs clear medication rules and ruthless enforcement. It needs a massive investment in anti-doping testing as well as a new commitment to gumshoe investigative work. The sport needs a leader, a Commissioner, someone who will have the legal authority and political power to make decisions "in the best interests of racing." The needs are as obvious as the sport's stubborn refusal to address them.
This is what the sport needs. What does it get instead? It gets the New York Racing Association inexplicably refusing to allow ESPN to use video clips of horses going down. It gets sycophantic racing writers asking the American people to ignore the grim truth about a hundred horses, or a thousand horses, in favor of glorifying the worthy exploits of a single horse. This is why this year's Belmont is so crucial. It will mark another moment in the sport's long history where its actors will have a meaningful opportunity, perhaps for the last time, to salvage its future.
THE FAR TURN
Everyone seems to think I dislike O'Neill. I don't. For example, I like the way he reacted last week to the comments of Penny Chenery, the great Secretariat's owner, who pointedly told me that I'll Have Another's owner, Canadian-born Paul Reddam, should be "embarrassed" at having O'Neill as a trainer. Chenery was sending a strong message many industry stakeholders believe needs to be sent to owners around the sport. But O'Neill was smart enough to understand that his response would be more important than Chenery's comment itself. O'Neill said:
It's disappointing because of how much respect I have for Mrs. Cheney. I would love to have her hang out with me for a week and would stress to her, "Don't believe everything that is written."
This is pitch perfect. An appropriately humble response to a legitimate concern raised about him by a woman whose positive impact upon horse racing for the past 40 years has been immeasurable. This is why so many people over the past five weeks, in and out of the sport, have defended O'Neill. But then, just one week later, O'Neill uttered this nonsense to Bob Costas when asked about the doping allegations that have followed him from California:
Well through our vigorous contesting of these allegations, we've learned that there are numerous issues that can raise a horse's TCO2 levels be it the weather that day, be it the gender of the horse, be it the sweat, if the horse sweats too much. It's not a drug, and that's something that gets tossed around a lot in the media that high TCO2 is that a horse has a drug in it, but it's all a natural reading that every horse has.
California put in a rule four or five years ago that if a horse had a high TCO2, he was deemed to have been milkshaked and then some of the other parts of the country followed suit and just through running a lot of horses, we've kind of fallen into a couple pickles but we run a clean barn, and through all this extra examination we've been able to show how much we love the horses...
In horse racing, everyone has an excuse. Everyone has an explanation. No one accepts responsibility. Regulators don't enforce the rules aggressively enough. And when they do the targets of their investigation whine about how unfair the rules are. A few weeks ago, for example, New York regulators suspended a harness racing trainer for nearly 1,700 pre-race medication violations. How did the industry react? Leading trainers were outraged-- at regulators. "We all do it," the trainers said. Can you imagine?
AFTER THE WIRE
I'll Have Another stoically carries all of this baggage with him to the post on Saturday-- a weight allowance no horse should have to bear. It's hard enough to win one Classic race. It's harder still to win two. And now for the colt to get the prize he has to beat several serious horses-- like Union Rags and Dulluhan-- who skipped the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago so they could be better rested for Belmont's mile-and-a-half marathon. If I'll Have Another wins the Belmont he surely will deserve the Triple Crown.
But then what? What happens to horse racing when the network television cameras go away? What happens when O'Neill is anointed a Triple Crown trainer? Will the industry be moved enough by the "embarrassment" here to undertake meaningful reform? Will it ensure that trainers who are accused of doping violations have their cases quickly resolved? There is a level of lawlessness in horse racing that cannot be ignored and that must be stopped before the sport can reasonably expect to thrive.
Five weeks ago, before the Derby, I wrote that horse racing needs more than a Triple Crown to dig itself out of trouble. The past 35 days have borne out that belief. In one horse, in one trainer, you see the inherent contradictions of the sport. No mortal can control which horses ultimately succeed at the sport's highest level. But every single person in the industry can help control how fair and honest the sport is and could become. That this challenge today appears harder to overcome than winning a Triple Crown is no reason the industry shouldn't at least try.