07/05/2006 11:00PM

24 hours make longest day

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Heavily favored Lava Man will carry 124 pounds and the effects of at least 24 hours in a detention barn when he steps up to defend his title in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park.

The 124 pounds should be no problem, especially for a horse who has designs on national honors. Lava Man has been the most consistent older horse in the nation this year, with victories at the Gold Cup distance of 10 furlongs in the Santa Anita Handicap and Whittingham Memorial, plus two other minor victories at nine furlongs.

Lava Man's 24 hours under surveillance is another matter entirely. On Friday afternoon, the day before the race, he will be led from the comfort of his stall in trainer Doug O'Neill's Barn 63N, down the backstretch road some hundred yards to the Hollywood Park receiving barn. There, he will be bedded down in one of the stalls set aside for the detention of horses running for any trainer who has had a horse test too high for total carbon dioxide in a prerace blood test.

To the California Horse Racing Board, this excessive carbon dioxide level is evidence of an attempt to alter the performance of a horse by artificially reducing the tiring effects of lactic acid in muscles. Since last October, a total carbon dioxide count of more than 37 millimoles per liter of blood from a prerace test is considered a Class 3 drug violation, subject to fines, suspension and forfeiture of purses.

Even before that, however, a consortium of racing associations and groups representing owners and trainers began imposing a 24-hour detention and surveillance order on all starters from the offending trainer for 30 days, without the possibility of appeal.

O'Neill, a perennial meet leader in Southern California, had started approximately 1,500 horses without a violation since testing for high carbon dioxide counts was initiated in California in the fall of 2004. The O'Neill horse who tested too high for total carbon dioxide was Wisdom Cat, a 3-year-old son of Tale of the Cat who finished last in a Hollywood Park allowance race on May 27 at 48-1. Wisdom Cat came back to run a similarly poor race at Hollywood last Sunday.

"I'll never win a war of words and wouldn't want to try," said O'Neill, who said again on Thursday that his stable made no conscious attempt to flout the total carbon dioxide rules. "Anyway, it's the testing that's doing the talking. What I don't understand is how you go from, say, 1,499 straight starters and essentially being told, 'Oh, you're fine,' to that one 50-1 shot you supposedly tried to manipulate that ran dead last? They definitely give us more credit that we deserve."

O'Neill has yet to find out what penalties the racing board will impose. According to the California Horse Racing Board's executive secretary, Ingrid Fermin, no hearing date has been scheduled. In the meantime, O'Neill can seek some consolation in the company of other top trainers battling medication accusations.

Todd Pletcher, North America's Eclipse Award-winning trainer the past two years and current leader in purses, is taking the New York State Racing and Wagering Commission to court in an effort to overturn a 45-day suspension and $3,000 fine issued for the presence of the local anesthetic mepivacaine in the postrace sample of a horse he ran at Saratoga in 2004.

Scott Lake, the runaway leader in number of wins through the first half of 2006, is appealing a 30-day suspension and $2,000 fine imposed by New York stewards after one of his horses tested positive for an illegal level of clenbuterol after a race at Aqueduct in April.

Steve Asmussen, the nation's leader in number of wins for three of the past four years, is facing a six-month suspension and $2,500 fine from the Louisiana State Racing Commission, also for the presence of mepivacaine, which was found in the postrace sample of horse he ran at Evangeline Downs on March 24 of this year. Asmussen is appealing the penalty, which was scheduled to begin on Monday, July 10.

There is a substantial difference, however, in the impact of the various penalties. In the cases of Pletcher, Asmussen, and Lake, only the owners of the horse with the bad test stand to suffer. In the case of a 24-hour prerace surveillance policy, any owner in the barn could have a horse rattled by the detention process and fail to run his race.

"No owner has left me over this, knock on wood," O'Neill noted. "But I have had owners call the TOC [Thoroughbred Owners of California] to ask why their horse is under detention when it had nothing to do with them.

"To accuse someone of doing something they didn't do, I don't see how you get anywhere, or what you learn that would help the game, other than you're pissing off a lot of owners who weren't involved and a lot of horses who have to change their environment.

"As far as Lava Man is concerned, he couldn't be doing better," O'Neill added. "He can be a real stall-kicker, though, so we're going to pad his stall in the detention barn. If he gets beat Saturday, it won't be because of the detention barn. And if the way he acted this morning is any indication, he will be very tough."