04/29/2013 4:48PM

Andrew Beyer: O'Neill back under Kentucky Derby microscope

Barbara D. Livingston
Doug O'Neill endured a string of critical articles in The New York Times and other publications after winning the Kentucky Derby last year.

When he went to Churchill Downs last year, trainer Doug O’Neill said, “I felt like the luckiest guy in the world to be part of the Kentucky Derby.” But after he saddled I’ll Have Another to win America’s most famous race, he could scarcely have imagined what the success would be like.

The front page of The New York Times detailed his history of medication infractions, and much of the media cited the reputation that had earned him the sobriquet “Drug” O’Neill. The Humane Society denounced him. The president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association said his record was inexcusable. Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, said the owner of I’ll Have Another should be embarrassed to employ such a trainer.

Unfazed, O’Neill is back at Churchill Downs this week with another prime Derby contender, Goldencents, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Both the trainer and the sport may expect another onslaught of negative publicity because of his presence. Mine may be a lonely voice saying that O’Neill has been maligned.

He rose to prominence in California a decade ago, at a time when “milkshakes” – a baking-soda solution used to enhance horses’ performance – were being used illicitly at many tracks. O’Neill claimed the previously undistinguished Lava Man for $50,000 and turned the gelding into one of the country’s top stakes horses, winning more than $5 million in purses. It was the kind of miraculous turnaround that makes the racing community believe that a trainer is cheating.

The industry finally adopted a test for milkshaking – it  measures the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a horse’s system – and while Lava Man never exceeded the legal limit, other O’Neill horses did so on four occasions. O’Neill said, “I am adamant that we don’t milkshake and we haven’t milkshaked,” but he carried a shady reputation into last year’s Triple Crown.

In the spring of 2012, The New York Times was running a series of articles about abuses in horse racing, particularly the high fatality rates at many U.S. tracks and the connection between drugs and those deaths. When O’Neill stepped into the limelight, the Times had a face to put on these issues. Citing his record of drug violations and the distressing breakdown rate of his horses, the Times wrote: “O’Neill’s Derby victory places him – and his troubled record – center stage at a time when thoroughbred racing is facing perhaps its greatest ethical reckoning.”

When O’Neill was making headlines last spring, I analyzed the records of his horses over the previous five years, and my findings contradicted his reputation. The hallmark of most cheaters is an outlandish win percentage – sometimes as high as 40 percent – after they have acquired a horse from another trainer. O’Neill’s win rate with his new acquisitions was a modest 18 percent. When they did win, his horses almost never displayed the sudden, implausible improvement that suggests a trainer is using illegal drugs.

Nor were there suspicious-looking performances in the cases when O’Neill was punished for medication violations or CO2 above the limit. The trainer received a 45-day suspension after Argenta showed a CO2 overage in a 2010 race, a penalty that was cited in virtually every article about O’Neill’s nefarious record. But Argenta was a hopeless case who went off at 20-1 and finished next-to-last, and it is seems inconceivable that the trainer would be using a milkshake to help her win.
O’Neill acknowledged that his critics were right about the high injury record of his horses. “We had a period when we had a rash of injuries and I had to look in the mirror,” he said. “I was running horses too often – I was a little sloppy there. I’m learning to run horses less frequently and being more diligent about that.”

He was stung by some of the other criticism – particularly the fallout after he scratched I’ll Have Another from the Belmont Stakes because of a tendon injury. The Times suggested that O’Neill had campaigned an infirm animal throughout the Triple Crown series and kept him going with the use of “powerful painkillers.” He felt that this depiction was a reckless distortion of the facts.

But for the most part the trainer kept his focus on his work, retained his good humor, and didn’t shy away from the media. (Bravely, he agreed to be the subject of a report on “60 Minutes Sports,” which will air on Showtime at 9 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday.) O’Neill said he has been buoyed by the continued support of his owners: “They know we love our horses and take great care of them. The people who were with me [before the controversy] are still with me.”

Paul Reddam, I’ll Have Another’s owner, marveled at his trainer’s demeanor. “He went to work with a smile every day,” Reddam said. “I was amazed with the resilience he showed.”

All of the attention to O’Neill’s alleged misdeeds obscured the excellence of his work with I’ll Have Another. It’s tough for even the best trainers to bring a horse through a series of demanding prep races and then get them to reach peak condition on the first Saturday in May, but O’Neill did so. I’ll Have Another’s Derby was the best performance of his career to date, and his Preakness was even better.

The ability that O’Neill displayed in 2012 reinforces Goldencents’s status as a principal Derby contender. The modestly bred colt has looked like a top prospect since he won his debut at Del Mar by seven lengths. But when he got involved in a suicidal speed duel and faded to finish fourth in the San Felipe Stakes in March, O’Neill admitted, “We thought the horse might have distance limitations.”

O’Neill made some changes to Goldencents’s training regimen and gave him one more chance in the Santa Anita Derby. After vying for the lead, the colt pulled away in the stretch and won the fastest of all the major Kentucky Derby prep races. If he can duplicate that performance Saturday, he will put O’Neill’s name on a short list of trainers who have won America’s greatest race back to back, and perhaps earn him some overdue credit for his skill as a horseman.
© 2013, The Washington Post

Alan Smith More than 1 year ago
Why would anybody feel what the New York Times writes has any validity.
classy freddie blassie More than 1 year ago
the fools that run the new york times hate the irish, they should be ashamed for the factless reporting last year and while i will never have any proof of this i will always feel the powers that be forced o'neill to scratch IRA or else. this country is run by a cabal of dark forces it is sad to say. great article beyer.
Mark Taylor More than 1 year ago
I agree. He is a top hoseman and seemingly a great guy. He represented the sport with class throughout the Triple Crown in 2012. Thanks for offering an objective presentation of his record!
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
Thank you, Mr. Beyer, for your article on Doug O'Neill. It was well-written and very fair. Excellent article. Every time I think about The New York Times and the shenanigans they pulled last year in some dodgy reporting about I'll Have Another and Doug O'Neill, I see red! It still makes me angry to this day. Their reporter created a lot of horrible, needless hysteria last year regarding I'll Have Another & Doug O'Neill, but NYT paid a price for their role in this hysteria in the end. Being rapped on the knuckles publically by your own peers had to have stung. I certainly hope it did! Doug O'Neill was grace under pressure the whole time during the Triple Crown chase with I'll Have Another, as was IHA - grace under pressure. Doug O'Neill should have been enjoying being heralded in training a pretty fabulous champion horse in I'll Have Another far more than he was allowed to enjoy his triumph. It's incredibly hard to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby, let alone win it, then win the Preakness and contend for a Triple Crown triumph. Doug O'Neill further proved in the eye-popping performances and triumphs of I'll Have Another that he is an excellent trainer. He had a special bond with I'll Have Another, he was always nurturing with him. I admired the way Doug handled himself throughout the whole Triple Crown process. Most people would not have been as courteous or as nice as he was if they were placed in his position. He handled the situation with grace. I admired the way I'll Have Another handled himself - professional and calm the whole time. I admired the way Mario Gutierrez handled the situation. Everybody on Team O'Neill handled things professionally and as affably as possible. Kudos all the way around from me to all of them. I'm happy to see this year that the media is being much more fair and calm toward Doug O'Neill and to his Derby steed this year, Goldencents. I'm thrilled Doug is getting the chance to achieve a 2-Peat in the Kentucky Derby. What an awesome achievement that would be! One of Doug's best qualities is that he is deeply loyal, and he supports the dreams of other people. He gave Mario Gutierrez a chance at his dream of riding in the Kentucky Derby, and the rest is Kentucky Derby history. Late last year, Doug did exactly the same thing by placing Kevin Krigger on Goldencents, staying loyal to Kevin by sticking with him when others were breathing down Doug's neck to replace Kevin Krigger with more experienced "stakes winning" jockeys, by keeping Kevin on Goldencents, a jockey Goldencents clearly enjoys as his pilot. Kevin's dream is to be in the KY Derby and to win it. Doug has given him his chance at that. The media should be concentrating and reporting on that and on Goldencents' chances to win the Derby. I hope Doug gets to enjoy the ride this year. He deserves it. Good luck to you, Doug O'Neill, Team O'Neill, Kevin Krigger and Goldencents in the Kentucky Derby. And thank you once again, Mr. Beyer, for your words and your fairness.
Songboss57 More than 1 year ago
I like him.
John Burton More than 1 year ago
Amen, Mr. Beyer, Amen! I agree with the thesis of your article that Doug O'Neill has been unjustly maligned by the media in the past. I hope the media does not play their tired song this year! I also agree that Mr. O'Neill exhibited amazing resilience in the face of the negative media onslaught last year! I rode I"LL HAVE ANOTHER with him to the winner's circle last year and I will ride GOLDENCENTS with him to the winner's circle this year! Go, Doug, Go! oops, excuse me, "Go O'Neill Team, Go!" P.S. - Kevin Krigger is a jockey who has a date with destiny...on May 4th!
Justin More than 1 year ago
Facts are facts! Doug has been under the microscope that past year and his win percentage is way down from normal. A little suspicious to me..
Pom De Terre More than 1 year ago
said it b4, will say it again- for all you "Clean freaks"out there supporting o'neill, send him to england for a week- he'll come back with no horses, no visa, no passport and no license.
dazed and confused More than 1 year ago
Road Apple
Mike Carney More than 1 year ago
Great article Andy, and I am glad it is also running in the Washington Post, particularly after the atrocious and factually ridiculous reporting from the NYT and others. Mike Lupica, who I sorta regard well, flat out called Doug .."a Huckster..". Come on Mike! The attacks were personal and oddly venomous. Joe Drape came unhinged. I gotta believe that guy is overprescribed on something. Neither of these guys or others took the time to check facts and find out about Doug. Part of it has nothing to do with him and has more to do with our more "civilized" culture that Horse racing suffers from versus 40, 50 years ago, although I don't see a lot of evidence that we're that much more civil now than we were then. The horse is more well looked after now than ever. Doug can be found on a lot of race days at Santa Anita sitting at a table with his Mom, his Brother, his kids, nephews and nieces. He invites his owners and friends to join them all the time. It's like you just walked into the O'Neill family kitchen. The conversation ranges from school, to sports, to "how's your kids?" and other topics, until a few minutes before post time, then things get hectic. On the training side, he does so many right things. He's done a fantastic job this year with Goldencents, teaching and training him and the results are obvious. He puts the same efforts into a $20k Maiden claimer trying for the fifth time to win, too. It would be nice if we can get the flip side of the ugly and wrongheaded reporting from last year and have the press show the real guy, who's one of the truly good guys in this sport. One can only hope.
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
Nice post, Mike.
George Lemel More than 1 year ago
Great researched and well thought out article Andrew! You know racing, which obviously a lot of people don't by some of the comments made below! Doug is an outstanding trainer and his staff is second to none! They work hard seven days a week and treat all their horses like kings or queens! He doesn't drug his horses and as an owner you can walk into the barn any time you want! Thank you again for a great article and here's to Doug winning another derby this year!!