SEARCHING FOR THE TRUTH ON DOUG O’NEILL

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

Doug O'Neill was riding high last Friday night. Wickedly Perfect, a filly he trains for the partnership of Peter Moehrke, JR Ranch, and STD Racing Stable, had just won Del Mar's Grade 3 Sorrento Stakes, and O'Neill was getting primed to groove to the tunes of the B-52s, the rock 'n' roll band playing at the San Diego-area track's weekly Friday night concert.


But all was not well in O'Neill's world. Eighty miles up the freeway at Los Alamitos racetrack in Orange County, another filly O'Neill trains, this one now toiling at the lowest level claiming ranks, would soon be taking her last breath. Burna Dette, a 5-year-old daughter of top California sire Unusual Heat racing, was entered in the third race at Los Alamitos, a $2,000 claiming event for fillies and mares going 4 1/2 furlongs. Ridden by Cesar DeAlba, Burna Dette was bet down to 4-5 favoritism in the field of 10, largely because only two weeks earlier she was competing for a $16,000 tag on Del Mar's opening day program.


When the gates opened, Burna Dette struggled to keep up with the field, and by the time she was rounding the turn broke down badly, sending DeAlba flying to the dirt. Fortunately, the jockey was not injured. Burna Dette wasn't so lucky. She was dead within minutes. By then, however, she had a new owner. The filly was claimed from Gregg Guiol, owner of a brokerage firm in Newport Beach, Calif., by trainer Vod J. Farris for Thomas Granstrom.


The California Horse Racing Board said the incident involving Burna Dette is “under review.” Racing fans and some of his fellow trainers expressed outrage in online forums and social networking pages like Facebook over the significant drop in class O'Neill orchestrated for Burna Dette, suggesting he was simply dumping the filly into such a low-priced spot in order to get her claimed.


O'Neill said like it or not it's all part of the business, and he took his own shots at some of those who criticized him.


“It's a business for my owners,” said the 42-year-old O'Neill, who has won at least two dozen training titles in Southern California since taking out his license in 1994. “Unfortunately it's not like polo where if a horse comes up with arthritis you find them a nice home and go get another horse,” he said. “It's a business. I could have given the horse some time and run her back for $10,000, but said, 'Let's try to find her an easy spot.' If I was a multi-gazillionaire, I'd retire them all. But if you run them as soft as possible and make it easy on them, it's what keeps them going.”

PEER PRESSURE

Among those criticizing O'Neill was Dan Ward, assistant to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer who posted a message on his personal Facebook page, saying “everyone in the horse racing business should be ashamed” of what happened with Burna Dette. Ward later retracted the statement and apologized publicly to O'Neill.


“It was so ironic that Tuscan Evening died the day Danny Ward called me a horse murderer,” said O'Neill, referring to a Sunday morning incident in which the female turf star collapsed and died following a workout on the Del Mar turf.


Another fellow trainer, Kristin Mulhall, commented on the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's racing forum that “a trainer should have their license taken away for an incident like Burna Dette. It was obvious something was seriously wrong! We are here to take care of the horses and make the right calls for them, not butcher them. I understand a sound horse will break down and sh– happens but not in a case like this.”


“It shocked me,” O'Neill said of Mulhall's criticism. “I didn't read the things personally, but here she was, an anti-racing PETA person trying to save the day, saying that running at Los Alamitos is evil. Look, this is an extremely dangerous sport for jockeys, for exercise riders, for grooms. When something unfortunate like this happens and people throw stones, it is so wrong. It's very disappointing to me. I try not to let any of that get to me, but it does.”


Mulhall, in an interview with the Paulick Report, said she was just as disappointed with Burna Dette's owner as she was with O'Neill. “If someone can afford to buy a horse for $25,000,” she said, “they don't need $2,000. An owner needs to be responsible.” Guiol had claimed Burna Dette just two races back for $25,000 at Hollywood Park June 24 from trainer Bob Hess. Bred by Jeff Stiefel, Burna Dette won two of 19 starts, with four seconds and three thirds for earnings of $136,700.


O'Neill said he turned down offers from individuals to buy Burna Dette beforehand because the owner wanted to win the race and hoped to keep the horse. But O'Neill lost all three of the horses in the claiming box that he ran at Los Alamitos last weekend: Back Nine Doc, dropping from $12,500 to $3,200 for owner J. Paul Reddam while running third Aug. 7; Taxi Fleet, dropping from $8,000 to $2,000 for Gregg Guiol while winning on Aug. 8; and Burna Dette, who broke down after dropping from $16,000 to $2,000 for Guiol on Aug. 6.


Mulhall attempted to purchase Taxi Fleet privately and then dropped a claim on the horse but lost the shake to trainer Chris O'Dell. “I just wanted to buy the horse as a riding horse,” said Mulhall. “I wanted to retire him.”


Mulhall said owners often pressure trainers to drop unsound horses significantly in class in hopes of losing them via the claiming box. Then they'll be someone else's problem and expense. Knowing where and when to drop horses in class has been part of the claiming business for as long as claiming races have been the bread and butter of the racing game. Many trainers and horseplayers become familiar with the pattern of what might be “suspicious” class drops by trainers who play a high-stakes gambling game with their horses.


“I lost a pretty good owner when I told him I wouldn't run a horse, and they took the horse away from me and he broke down,” she said. “It's our job to make sure these horses are sound and safe when they go out there. I don't know the truth about Burna Dette, but there are rumors all over the place about what happened.”


Mulhall said state or association veterinarians at the major Southern California racetracks are “very, very strict” in pre-race inspections of horses but that at Los Alamitos “they'll let anything go.”

PRE-RACE INSPECTIONS

That's not true, according to veterinarian Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board's equine medical director.


“They are very similar to any other track,” Arthur said of the pre-race inspections for Los Alamitos races. “Dr. Gary Beck examined (Burna Dette) at Hollywood Park (where she was stabled prior to shipping to Los Alamitos to race). He is quite experienced and had examined the filly a couple of times. Dr (Thomas) Hackathorn is their track veterinarian, and he does read the Racing Form and is particularly aware of things like this kind of class drop, which certainly raises red flags. Those things get attention and we encourage stewards if they notice something that doesn't look quite right to notify the examining vets to see if they picked up on any abnormalities. It's all part of the matrix that examining veterinarians use.”


O'Neill said Burna Dette had trained between her last two starts and “got by” the state vet inspection. “She walked for three days and then ponied alongside an ex-racehorse on the training track at Hollywood Park two times around every day going into the race.”


Last fall, the CHRB appeared to be moving toward adoption of a rule that would void any claims of horses that failed to come back on their own power to be unsaddled after a race. But at the CHRB's November meeting, the rule change was tabled. Vice chairman David Israel said the proposed change “falls into the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' category.” Arthur has pushed for the rule change, saying a trainer and owner had been seen “high-fiving” each other when a horse of theirs was claimed from a race in which it broke down.


Arthur said CHRB commissioner Bo Derek is pushing for a rule that requires training and veterinary medical records automatically be turned over to the board when a horse dies at a CHRB licensed racetrack.


O'Neill opposes both proposed rule changes.


“The game is spiralling down to begin with,” the trainer said. “These horses go through a thorough pre-race examination. That's part of protecting the horse. A rule like that (voiding claims) would not be protecting the investor, the horse owner. The area that scares me is that there are certain guys with a lot of power in the game that are really against about 10 trainers out here—and I know I'm one of those trainers. There are some people with biases against us.”


O'Neill said he doesn't think his veterinary records should be subject to inspection, either. “They are trying to drum up an 'aha moment,' like, 'Hey, you X-rayed that horse six weeks ago and should have known something was wrong.' It's a Rick Arthur Big Brother kind of play, saying this should never have happened. These guys who come up with their 'We're going to save the game' rules have a lot of issues themselves. Rick Arthur and Richard Mandella had a horse heel-nerved and ran it back, and if it was you or me we'd be ruled off, but because it was them it was just fine.” (Editor's Note: Heel nerving was not prohibited in California when a horse treated by Arthur, then in private practice, and trained by Mandella had the procedure done.)


“I loved that filly,” O'Neill said of Burna Dette. “It was heart-wrenching what happened to her. I went over to her and she had a little rough gait to her, but there was nothing about her that said she would break down. It was just a freakish, crazy thing. We need to console each other instead of saying how evil people are when something like this happens.”


I asked O'Neill, given what happened to Burna Dette after being dropped so sharply in class, if he would do the same thing again with another horse.


“I definitely would,” he said. “I've been blessed to win a lot of races with horses that dropped like that. It's easier on them.”


Perhaps not on Burna Dette.

Copyright © 2010, Blenheim Publishing, LLC

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