Dear Doug: Seize the Moment
It’s been 12 years since Marion Jones thrilled the sporting world by winning five Olympic medals at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Twelve long years. Since becoming the darling of track and field and signing multi-million-dollar endorsement deals, Jones has had to endure grand jury probes, public ridicule, six months in federal prison, bankruptcy, and personal shame. All because she embraced cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs and then, faced with an opportunity to fess up, refused to come clean.
In other words: deny, deny, deny.
Jones is trying to clean up her image as the 2012 London Olympics come into view, appearing recently on CNN’s Piers Morgan talk show to discuss her long personal nightmare. Just like disgraced athletes in other sports, including baseball’s Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens, Jones had a choice. She could have, from the time authorities first began investigating whether or not she was cheating, stood up and said: “I did it. It was wrong. I’m sorry.”
That’s what world-class sprinter Kelli White did in 2004. Caught up in the same Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation that wrecked the careers of Jones, Bonds, and others, White did what few other high-profile athletes have done: she immediately admitted her guilt, then offered to use her inside knowledge to help clean up the sport. While Marion Jones was calling the United States Anti-Doping Agency probe a “kangaroo court” and lied to two federal grand juries, White promptly admitted her wrongdoing, saying, “I have not only cheated myself, but also my family, friends and sport. If I can make a difference in cleaning up the sport, then I will have done more for the sport than anything I could have done on the track.”
While Marion Jones was crying herself to sleep in prison, Kelli White was earning an MBA degree and preparing for a career outside of track and field. White, who did the unthinkable and broke rank by ending the code of silence among cheaters, was considered by many to be a hero. Jones, who milked her fame for every last dollar, was seen as the poster child for what is wrong in track and field, and sports in general.
Horse racing is not immune from the problems involving performance enhancing drugs that have haunted other sports. And like those other sports, with rare exceptions, the knee-jerk reaction from participants to positive drug tests and rules violations is the same: deny, deny, deny.
That’s what Triple Crown trainer Doug O’Neill has done when four of his horses – three in California and one in Illinois – tested above the permitted level for total carbon dioxide. TCO2 levels can be raised artificially by loading bicarbonates into a horse’s system. The end result is the neutralization of muscle fatigue-causing lactic acid buildup.
O’Neill, the trainer of Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, was handed a 45-day suspension and $15,000 fine by the California Horse Racing Board last week for his most recent TCO2 infraction, dating back to August 2010. The penalty followed the recommendation of a hearing officer, who said the excessive TCO2 level was not caused by a traditional “milkshake,” an illegal procedure that involves flushing a mix of baking soda and fluids into the stomach via a nasogastric tube. The case was delayed, in part, because O’Neill filed a federal lawsuit, since dismissed, against the regulatory board, saying its testing procedures are flawed. Yet only a small number of TCO2 violations have been called in California since 2006, and no trainers besides O’Neill have been charged with more than one.
He fought previous sanctions for his TCO2 violations as well. O’Neill and surrogates for him have claimed the CHRB, for some reason, is out to get him. He also appealed to the CHRB to keep the suspension given to him by the Illinois Racing Board for a 2010 TCO2 violation from being reciprocated in California. O’Neill claims to have no idea how his horses, among the thousands that tested below the 37.0 millimole per liter threshold, exceeded the legal limit.
O’Neill has sworn on stacks of Bibles and on his children’s eyes that he’s done nothing wrong, but I think it’s time to cut the crap, to stop acting like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds or a pre-imprisoned Marion Jones. Of course he didn’t administer milkshakes or knowingly do anything to raise the TCO2 level of his horses above the permitted level. But did he, his stable staff, or veterinarians he employed try to manipulate the physiology of O’Neill’s horses to get an edge by increasing carbon dioxide levels higher than the norm?
If the answer is “yes,” there would be no better time than now for O’Neill to come forward and admit wrongdoing, to say he got caught up in the competitiveness of the sport, that he was only trying to compete on a level playing field because he thought everyone else was doing the same thing.
Horse racing is in the cross-hairs for a number of reasons, and O’Neill is our present-day poster child for what is wrong with the game. Yes, he is as tireless a promoter of racing as anyone in the sport right now, and I’ll Have Another could carry him to heights he could never have imagined. But the questions about his numerous medication violations, including those four TCO2 infractions, are going to dog him between now and the June 9 Belmont, and all the way down Victory Lane should I’ll Have Another become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.
I wrote last week I believe O’Neill deserves another chance to remold his image, that whatever misdeeds occurred in the past will not be repeated. I was called naïve (among other things) for believing that success, instead of spoiling Doug O’Neill, has taught him a valuable lesson in how to conduct himself as a Thoroughbred trainer.
By not continuing down the road of denial traveled by the likes of Marion Jones or Roger Clemens and baring his soul in the manner of Kelli White, O’Neill could put an end to all of the questions about his past.
By cooperating with racing authorities instead of fighting them or suing them, by saying he made mistakes that he will never again repeat, by accepting the 45-day suspension (and perhaps voluntarily taking additional time off), O’Neill could turn enemies into supporters. He could become a hero to those who are pushing for reforms in hopes of cleaning up racing and its image, in the process transforming himself into a leader of that very movement. O’Neill could almost singlehandedly change the conversation and help make the game stronger, its future brighter. And he would almost certainly feel better about himself.
That course of action would have a far greater positive impact on the sport than a Triple Crown triumph ever could.