No racing writer has been tougher on 2012 Kentucky Derby/Preakness-winning trainer Doug O'Neill in recent years than I have been over his medication violations and the catastrophic breakdowns of horses in his stable. I would, however, be the ultimate hypocrite if I didn't believe O'Neill deserved a second chance or an opportunity to rehabilitate his image.
I don't regret anything I've written about the trainer of I'll Have Another, whether it was about his denial at the time of his medication violations that he shouldered the ultimate responsibility, his reaction to criticism from fellow trainers over an equine racing fatality, or the schadenfreude he demonstrated when one of those critics later suffered a racing setback of their own.
But I've seen O'Neill in a different light since I last addressed those perceived shortcomings in the fall of 2010. And I'm not just talking about the enthusiasm and humility he's shown in front of the NBC Sports television cameras at Churchill Downs or Pimlico in recent telecasts of the Derby and Preakness.
We learn from our mistakes. Trust me, I speak from experience in that regard. I hope and truly believe that O'Neill has learned from the missteps he's made, that he's matured as a person and as a trainer, and has come to understand that his actions affect the entire industry, in ways that can be positive or negative.
I knew as soon as I'll Have Another caught Bodemeister in deep stretch of the Kentucky Derby that O'Neill was going to be in for a rough ride, having to answer questions about his history of medication violations and equine fatalities. The heat is going to be turned up even higher between now and the June 9 Belmont. And it certainly isn't unfair for anyone to bring up his past or ask tough questions about it.
His record will be brought up today before the California Horse Racing Board, which is due to meet and consider a recommendation from a hearing officer on a TCO2 infraction on a filly named Argenta from August 2010 at Del Mar. O'Neill faces up to a 180-day suspension, and the CHRB has some choices. It can accept whatever decision the hearing officer recommends, it can reject the recommendation, or modify it.
More likely, CHRB members are going to kick the can down the road a month or two and not be a buzz-killer for horse racing during this exciting Triple Crown season for O'Neill and the racing public. That's their right.
O'Neill's past isn't pretty. By my count, from 2005 to 2011 in California, Florida, and Illinois, he has been sanctioned no fewer than 12 times for overages of therapeutic medication, positive tests for drugs that should not be in a horse's system on the day it races, or violation of TCO2 threshold levels, which measure the amount of total carbon dioxide in a horse's blood. An increase in TCO2 can neutralize the lactic acid buildup that causes fatigue in a horse.
According to the New York Times, O'Neill has a fatal breakdown rate that is about twice the national average.
He knows those kinds of statistics are not acceptable. While O'Neill remains in denial over the TCO2 violations (only a handful of trainers in California have been sanctioned once, and he has three violations on his record in his home state, plus one in Illinois), he has admitted to racing writers that he's made mistakes. That is something he wasn't willing to do two years ago, or even last October when I conducted this interview with him.
His brother Dennis didn't help the Doug O'Neill rehabilitation process when he appeared CNN's Outfront with Erin Burnett and made the preposterous comment that he had to Google the term “milkshake” to see what it meant.
Yes, O'Neill starts a lot of horses, and many of those Thoroughbreds compete in claiming races, where it's standard operating procedure for virtually every trainer to treat various ailments with medication between starts. But O'Neill should know he can no longer afford to push the envelope on medications; if withdrawal guidelines say 72 hours, he needs to stay on the safe side and go to 96 hours or more. That's how trainers like Graham Motion, winner of last year's Kentucky Derby, have avoided ever being fined or suspended for medication violations – to err on the side of caution.
I'm not suggesting for a minute that O'Neill deserves a pass on his history. If the CHRB hearing officer recommends a lengthy suspension and the board concurs, it would be wrong to treat O'Neill with kid gloves because one of his horses is on the verge of making history as the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner.
What I am saying is that I'm going to judge him on how he conducts his business in the future. Everyone deserves a second chance.
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