By Ray Paulick
Doug O'Neill could learn a thing or two about honor and humility from Yasuo Ikee, a trainer who brought two-time Japanese Horse of the Year Deep Impact to France to contest the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 2006. Deep Impact finished third as the favorite, disappointing millions of Japanese horse racing fans, but the sting of that loss was nothing compared to the embarrassment and shame Ikee felt when a drug test came back positive for the prohibited medication Ipratropium a few days after the race. Deep Impact was disqualified and Ikee was fined.
Ikee didn't feign ignorance over how the drug got into the horse's system or blame his veterinarian for using it to treat lung congestion well in advance of the race, something that was permitted in Japan but not in France. He didn't file an appeal, saying it was unfair that medication rules in France are different from those in Japan.
He did none of that.
Instead, Ikee took his medicine. He paid the fine without complaining. He apologized, to racing authorities in France, to the Japan Racing Association, and to the many fans who had followed Deep Impact's career. He said he thought he was following the appropriate guidelines for the medication, but that he was wrong. Ikee pledged he would do everything in his power to become a better trainer and to understand the rules, both at home and abroad, so something like this never happened again.
Later that year, after Deep Impact won the Japan Cup, Ikee was asked by the Japanese press about his experience in France. He became very emotional, calling it by far the lowest point of his professional career, and repeated his earlier apologies to fans and racing authorities.
Let's compare that to what Doug O'Neill said after his first public TCO2 overage in May 2006, shortly after the California Horse Racing Board began testing for the alkalizing agents that are said to prevent lactic acid buildup in a horse, thus slowing down muscle fatigue.
“We're completely innocent,” O'Neill told Bloodhorse.com at the time. “I kind of feel like a guy who is found guilty of a DUI who never took a drink.”
Hey, Doug. Find that guy for me, and I'll buy him a drink. He deserves one.
The penalty then for O'Neill was that he had to run his horses out of a detention barn, where they could be more closely watched. Cruel and unusual punishment? Hardly.
In January 2008, another O'Neill runner tested over the limit for TCO2. It took eight months for the CHRB to fine O'Neill $7,500 and suspend him for 30 days for the violation. But the suspension was stayed, as long as he didn't have any further positive tests over a 12-month period. The stay was convenient, in that it allowed O'Neill to participate in the 2008 Breeders' Cup.
Earlier this year, O'Neill shipped a horse named Stephen's Got Hope to Chicago, where he finished seventh in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne but got nabbed with an overage for TCO2. This time, O'Neill complained about the lab in Illinois that did the testing, but ultimately he decided to take his punishment there without filing an appeal. The penalty was $1,000 and a 15-day suspension. He did appeal over whether the Illinois suspension should be recognized in California, suggesting that because the rules are slightly different in the two states there should not be reciprocity. He lost that appeal and closed down his stable for 15 days in the latter part of the Hollywood Park summer meeting.
Sandwiched between the Illinois violation and the recent complaint that Argenta, a filly he trains, tested over the limit for TCO2 in an Aug. 25 race at Del Mar, was the drama that O'Neill created at Los Alamitos when a low-level claiming horse from his barn broke down and died in a race after barely raising a gallop coming out of the starting gate. That horse, a filly named Burna Dette, had been claimed by O'Neill and owner Greg Guiol for $25,000 at Hollywood Park in late June and two starts later was dumped into a $2,000 claiming race at Los Alamitos.
His explanation for the huge class drop by Burna Dette was: “It's a business.”
Of course, O'Neill suggests he is innocent of the most recent TCO2 overage, though it sounds as though he's been lawyered a bit. “To the best of my knowledge, no substance was given to this horse that would have raised her TCO2 level,” O'Neill told Daily Racing Form. “Consequently, I'm working with CHRB investigators, trying to figure out what happened.”
O'Neill's act is tired. It's doing nothing to advance horse racing's image and counter the undercurrent of skeptics who believe cheaters are ruining the game. By now, I am convinced that Doug O'Neill, unlike Yasuo Ikee, has no shame. But I am wondering about the owners who keep filling his stalls with horses, allowing him to win yet another training title, as he will do this afternoon at Del Mar. Have they no shame, either?
Copyright © 2010, Blenheim Publishing
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