The New York State Gaming Commission suspension of Doug O'Neill set in motion steps that could have far-reaching implications beyond the stipulated settlement that was intended to sideline the Southern California-based trainer from Nov. 3-Dec. 18, 2014. We already know O'Neill has been suspended 45 days and will not be able to participate in the Breeders' Cup. But things could get worse for him, much worse, based on what actions are taken by the California Horse Racing Board.
The suspension stems from a positive test for the drug Oxazepam, detected in a post-race sample taken from O'Neill-trained Wind of Bosphorus, who finished first in a race at Belmont Park on June 2, 2013.
The start date of the suspension, obviously, was negotiated so O'Neill could conduct business as usual for his large stable at the 31st Breeders' Cup championships at Santa Anita Park. Or so he thought.
Those plans were spoiled last Friday – less than 48 hours after the O'Neill suspension was first reported – when Breeders' Cup officials invoked their “Convicted Trainer Rule.” Originally adopted in 2010 and amended in 2012, the Breeders' Cup rule bans participation of trainers who, within the preceding 12 months, received a medication violation involving either a Class 1 or Class 2 drug carrying a Category A penalty under guidelines adopted by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.
Oxazepam, a human anti-anxiety medication, is classified by RCI as a Class 2 drug with Category A penalties.
O'Neill, as a result, will not be able to be the trainer of record for any horses at the Breeders' Cup.
The RCI's recommended penalties and model rules for a first offense in Category A, which the New York State Gaming Commission apparently did not follow, call for a one-year suspension absent mitigating circumstances, along with a $10,000 fine for the trainer.
Since the negotiations between O'Neill and his attorneys and the New York State Gaming Commission were conducted secretively, there is no way of knowing what, if any, mitigating circumstances may have been involved. O'Neill told his side of the story here.
The stipulated settlement states that not only is O'Neill suspended 45 days, but “every horse is denied the privileges of the grounds and shall not participate in pari-mutuel racing in New York State that is (a) owned or trained by (O'Neill), or by an individual who serves as (O'Neill's) agent or employee during (the) suspension.”
In other words, O'Neill's horses cannot run in New York under his assistant trainer's name, as typically occurs when a trainer is suspended. It is not clear whether that portion of the stipulated agreement is reciprocal in other states.
That may explain why O'Neill-trained 2013 Vosburgh winner Private Zone was transferred to Parx Racing-based trainer Alfredo Velazquez prior to this year's Vosburgh, which Private Zone also won.
But will O'Neill's stable be able to operate in Southern California during his suspension?
Not if the California Horse Racing Board follows its own rules.
On May 24, 2012, after the O'Neill-trained I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the CHRB voted to accept the recommendation of a hearing officer to suspend the trainer for 45 days in a medication complaint dating back to August 2010, when a filly named Argenta tested over the allowable limit for total carbon dioxide (TCO2). In California, that is a Class 3 violation of CHRB rules. The suspension was conveniently served after the Triple Crown's final race, though I'll Have Another was scratched on the eve of the Belmont Stakes with a career-ending injury.
The hearing officer concluded the TCO2 overage was not the result of an intentional act (a.k.a “milkshaking” a horse by giving it a mixture of ingredients that would reduce lactic acid buildup and prevent fatigue). Nonetheless, the hearing officer recommended the 45-day suspension, based on rules that assign absolute responsibility to the trainer for any medication violation.
Included in that ruling were “135 additional days of suspension stayed for 18 months, provided O'Neill commits no further Class 1, 2, or 3 violations, regardless of jurisdiction.”
The New York penalty falls within 18 months of that May 23, 2012, ruling, so it would seem the CHRB has no choice but to suspend O'Neill 135 days, now that the New York case involving a Class 2 drug has been decided.
The CHRB has been non-committal about whether it intends to enforce that portion of the 2012 ruling.
That looming 135-day suspension would lead to another CHRB rule preventing O'Neill's horses from being automatically transferred to an assistant. In fact, O'Neill would have to give up his stalls and remove all of his equipment, tack, and signage should the CHRB decide to enforce section “L” of Rule 1843.3, which reads:
For the purpose of this regulation, licensed trainers suspended 60 days or more, or whose license is revoked, shall be banned from all inclosures under the jurisdiction of the CHRB. In addition, during the period of suspension, or revocation, such trainer shall forfeit all assigned stall space and shall remove from the inclosures all signage, advertisements, training-related equipment, tack, office equipment, and any other property.
Enforcement of the 2012 Argenta TCO2 ruling and CHRB Rule 1843.3 (l) puts O'Neill out of business through May 2, 2015, Kentucky Derby day. Any assistant trainers currently working for O'Neill who want to open their own public stable apparently would have to apply for stalls and purchase their own tack, equipment, webbings, and signage.
What that means for horses like defending Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents is unclear at this time.
Everyone is waiting to see if the other shoe is going to drop.
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