O’Neill Hearing: ‘TCO2 Levels Were Manipulated’
What exactly is a TCO2 “trifecta”?
Steffan Imhoff, the California Horse Racing Board hearing officer who conducted the hearing on the August 2010 TCO2 complaint (commonly called a milkshake) against trainer Doug O'Neill, defines it this way: of the 63 horses that raced at Del Mar on Aug. 25, 2010, the three highest TCO2 test results were all from horses trained by O'Neill, including Argenta, whose 39.4 millimole per liter level was well above the legal threshold of 37.0.
That TCO2 violation for Argenta, the fourth in O'Neill's career since 2006, led to a recommendation last week by the hearing officer that O'Neill be suspended 45 days and fined $15,000. The CHRB approved the recommendation, but the suspension, which can be appealed, will not take effect until sometime after July 1.
O'Neill started three horses that August 2010 afternoon at Del Mar. Argenta finished eighth in a $12,500 claiming race at odds of 20-1. Bandiea Union, who tested at 37.80, finished second at odds of 11-1 in a $10,000 claiming race. “To complete the trifecta,” wrote Imhoff, Hey Elvis, who finished second in the $75,000 Harry F. Brubaker Stakes at 11-10 odds, tested with the third highest level of the day, at 37.35.
Speaking of odds, hearing officer Imhoff said the chances of O'Neill horses ranking 1-2-3 by TCO2 levels among all starters that day as “a random event” were 41,664-to-1. “The trainer controls the TCO2 levels.”
In her next start, incidentally, after O'Neill was notified in early September of Argenta's alleged TCO2 violation, the filly tested at 29.75.
“This constituted a dramatic shift of 9.65 mm/l,” wrote Imhoff. “We believe these dramatic shifts are possible because there are several factors that affect TCO2 levels that are under the trainer's control.”
Imhoff said in his proposed decision to the board that O'Neill presented a compelling argument that Argenta did not receive a traditional milkshake – a bicarbonate loading of baking soda, confectionary sugar and water through a nasogastric tube. The purpose of increasing TCO2 levels is to neutralize lactic acid buildup that leads to muscle fatigue.
Further tests from the Maddy Lab supported O'Neill's contention. Sodium and chloride levels for Argenta both tested in the normal range, and Imhoff wrote in his report that experts for O'Neill and the CHRB “agreed that if Argenta had been milkshaked with baking soda (NaHCO3) this would have resulted in a highly elevated sodium level.”
Part of O'Neill's defense was based on the charge that testing equipment was not reliable because of the unusually high average for all horses tested for TCO2 levels at Del Mar Aug. 25, 2010. The average was 33.46, the second highest average for the entire year in California, exceeded only by the 33.71 average TCO2 for horses that raced at Santa Anita Feb. 24, 2010.
Attorneys for O'Neill also argued the California TCO2 rule is “irrational” because, unlike some other states, it does not permit a higher legal threshold for horses treated on raceday with the anti-bleeder medication furosemide, or Lasix. This so-called “Lasix bump” puts the threshold at 39.0 for Lasix horses in states like New York and Illinois.
The argument for the “Lasix bump” was not given credence by Imhoff after dismissing a paper submitted by O'Neill's attorneys suggesting administration of Lasix raised the TCO2 level by 4.9mm/l. Imhoff said based on average TCO2 levels, the “Lasix bump” would increase the overall average of “unmanipulated” horses to 38.3. Since over 95% of horses receive Lasix, Imhoff wrote, “This means that virtually every race horse in California should be earning a TCO2 positive. Instead it is more like .0001%.”
The attorney general's office prosecuting the case, Imhoff wrote, “Contends that overwhelming evidence was presented that Argenta's TCO2 levels were manipulated by O'Neill and that therefore he should be held to account for his misconduct whether it be intentional or negligent.”
Imhoff pointed out in his decision that Rule 1843.6, applicable to the case, does not say “manipulation” of TCO2 levels is illegal, only that testing above the 37.0 threshold is.
“A trainer can manipulate his horses' TCO2 level on race day without administering a sodium based (NaHCO3) milkshake,” he wrote. Among the methods of doing so are:
-Lasix, with Imhoff writing “credible evidence shows a correlation between the amount of Lasix given and the effect on TCO2 levels.” Veterinarian Joseph Dowd gave Argenta a 10cc shot of Lasix (at O'Neill's instructions) approximately four hours before post time, and blood was drawn for testing 40 minutes before the race. (Note: According to a spokesman for CHRB, the Hearing Officer erroneously wrote that the Lasix was administered 40 minutes prior to post.)
-Feed. “We also find clear evidence that the kind and amount of feed given can affect the horses TCO2 levels,” Imhoff wrote. “Again it is indisputable, and we so hold, that the trainer controls his charges' diet, and thus controls the TCO2 level affected by diet.”
-Exercise. “We hold that to the extent a horse's exercise program (how far, fast and often they work) affects TCO2 levels on race day the schedule is completely under the control of the trainer,” said Imhoff.
-Sweating and dehydration. “Argenta shipped over in a van from Hollywood Park on an extremely hot day….and the filly may have been sweating and dehydrated,” wrote Imhoff. “Of course the main responsibility for the condition of the filly falls on her trainer. It was up to O'Neill to make certain Argenta was ready to run. We conclude that any increase in her TCO2 level caused by dehydration was under his control.”
In his conclusion, Imhoff wrote: “We rejected (O'Neill's) well argued due process defense primarily because of the overwhelming evidence that California trainers in general and Mr. O'Neill in particular have learned various ways to manipulate TCO2 scores without serving milkshakes. We still cannot say it was done here intentionally.”
To read hearing officer Steffan Imhoff's decision to the CHRB, click here.