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Beyer: O'Neill handled himself admirably throughout a difficult Triple Crown run
By Andrew Beyer
Before I’ll Have Another was injured and withdrawn from the Belmont Stakes, people who care about horse racing hoped that he could win the Triple Crown and give the sport an exciting and positive story. It hasn’t had many of those lately.
For months leading up to the Belmont Stakes, Thoroughbred racing found itself under attack. The New York Times ran a front-page investigative report examining the high fatality rate at U.S. tracks. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lambasted the death of a horse in the filming of the racing drama “Luck,” and the outcry made HBO cancel the series. Politicians made an issue of safety in racing and urged stricter oversight by the government.
Underlying all of these criticisms was the assumption that some malfeasance is likely to be involved when horses get hurt or die - either through the profligate use of drugs or outright animal cruelty.
But the tendon injury that prompted the immediate retirement of I’ll Have Another underscored the more banal truth: Thoroughbred racehorses are fragile and injuries to them are commonplace. They have been bred for three centuries to produce maximum speed and stamina by carrying a powerful body on spindly, delicate underpinnings. Their ankles, knees, and legs are always vulnerable. I’ll Have Another was a different case only because his injury made front-page headlines and because it made more sense to retire a colt with future stud value than to bring him back to competition next year.
Because of the animals’ fragility, Thoroughbred trainers everywhere do what Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, was doing at Belmont Park all week. They watch intently. They watch how a horse moves when he walks and gallops; they observe his demeanor and his eating habits; they examine his legs looking for any abnormality. Whether a trainer is managing a potential Triple Crown winner or a $10,000 claimer who might help pay the month’s bills, he knows that the most important part of his job to detect potential problems before they turn into big - or even catastrophic - issues. Only the most irresponsible trainers would thrust an injured horse into battle.
O’Neill said at a press conference Friday that he had detected a slight change in I’ll Have Another’s demeanor this week - “He’s been a little quiet” - but that his legs had looked perfect until Thursday morning. He perceived a “loss of definition in the left front leg” but thought that the colt looked normal on Friday and sent him to the track for his morning exercise. But after the gallop, O’Neill said, “You could tell that the swelling was back.” He summoned the vet, and soon he learned that his hopes of training the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 were gone.
Owner Paul Reddam gave his trainer full credit for his vigilance. “The horse is not lame. He could have run tomorrow. You wouldn’t have known a difference had he not looked at it. So Doug, through extreme caution about the horse, had the vet come over and scan him.”
Reddam surely made a point extolling O’Neill in response to the avalanche of denunciations his trainer had received since winning the Kentucky Derby. While the issues of horse safety and the overuse of drugs had been boiling before the Derby, O’Neill’s success let the sport’s critics put a face on the abuses in horse racing.
When New York authorities announced that they would stable all of the Belmont Stakes runners in a special detention barn, the New York Times reported that the action was taken “to ensure that I’ll Have Another’s bid to sweep the series is contested . . . without illegal drugs.” It explained: “O’Neill has racked up multiple violations in a handful of states and was suspended for 45 days by California regulators for yet another violation.”
O’Neill sounds like an arch-villain until one looks at the details of his violations. Racing fans can readily recognize the form of horses whose trainers are cheating with drugs; it is marked by sudden improvement that defies all logic. O’Neill’s horses never look like this - not even in the cases that earned him a penalty. The 45-day ban was for a too-high level of carbon dioxide, which can be a sign of the illicit procedure known as “milkshaking” but can also be the result of many other factors (such as dietary supplements or Lasix). California officials handed out the suspension because rules are rules, and those rules need to be enforced to stop milkshaking. But they determined that O’Neill’s runner “had not been milkshaked and there was no evidence of any intentional acts on the part of O’Neill.” Yet the media continued to cite this case as Exhibit A to prove that O’Neill’s presence was a blight on the Triple Crown.
There was nothing in O’Neill’s handling of I’ll Have Another or his comportment throughout the Triple Crown series that would confirm this caricature.
He managed his horse flawlessly. He withstood calumny with more grace than most human beings could muster. And when he was deprived of his shot at the greatest prize in American racing, he took the setback calmly and without self-pity. “It’s far from tragic,” he said, “but it’s very disappointing.” Like every other member of his profession, he understands that injuries and disappointments are an unavoidable part of the game.
© 2012 The Washington Post
I lost all credit when they sold the horse overseas. Lets keep our top horses in America and the jobs that go with it.
O'Niel is a cheater,that horse was scratched due to scrutiny.
Doug O'Neill and the rest of the team have not had ANYTHING but the best intentions with I'll Have Another, anyone that says differently absolutely has no idea what they are talking about. There is no conspiracy theory here, simply a decision that was a business decision regarding the option to go to stud with I'll Have Another, when the iron is hot. Seriously no one in the same position would be making a different decision. The horse earned almost $ 3 million dollars in his short racing career. He did all that was asked of him, and for anyone to suggest differently is just plain ignorant. Yes, ignorant. Business is business, its been very simply stated if IHA came back a year to the races after his tendon issue, and then was less than 100% and lost a step, than his value at stud would be decreased. Kentucky Derby winners are regularly retired after their three year old year without any injury, so stop the speculating and trying to find something wrong with what Doug and the rest of the team decided to do. Its enough already!
Mr. Beyer, I hope that when they day comes that you decide to retire from DRF, that someone as articulate and well informed as you comes in to continue your fine editorials.
You are absolutely right Andy, O'Neill handled himself extremely well throughout this. And you are also right that O'Neill has never been known as a miracle trainer who claims a horse and then the horse miraculously increases his Beyer by 50 points and wins by 10 after running last the previous two races. The networks disgraced themselves with their coverage, but O'Neill showed nothing but class and decency. Nice job, Doug.
Last add TC: A combination of the detention barn & no works since yum brands led to the the demise of IHA and the mariner D O'neil & Co CA, KY, MD .........Si..........NY .........No...... Wonder if when they return in 2013, try again, will the Hopeful be on sced ?
Thank you for this article. It should have been done first in NY times. While judging Mr ONeill for weeks, without full disclosure, NY showed lack of personal, professional and journalistic ethics while projecting same thing they lacked on another object. NY and the NY times should be the last to point anything unethical elsewhere.
ILOVE THIS SPORT AND THE BELMONT THE TOP RACE FOR THE TRIPLE CROWN IS VERY COOL
iTS VERY PLAIN THAT HE VALUES THE HORES HEALTH OVER WEALTH AND I APPLAUD HIM FOR THAT YOU DID THR ONLY RIGHT THING POSSIBLE FOR THIS HORSE AND THIS HORSE"I'LL HAVE ANOTHER" WILL PRODUCE MANY OFFSPRING IN THE YEARS TO COME SAME AS SECETARIAT DID MAY HE REST FOREVER IN PEACE
Congrats to the Classy connections of Union Rags. Just what the sports needs. No Apologies necessary, right Andy? Is it true that IHA is entered in a $2000 Claimer at Podunk Downs Monday night? 2005: 2/5/2005, Bay Meadows, Jake Skate, Dantrolene; 3/10/2005, Santa Anita, Spirited, Dexamethasone; 5/27/2006, Hollywod Park, Wisdom Cat, TCO2; 1/17/2008, Santa Anita, Chicks Rule, TCO2; 12/27/2008, Santa Anita, Esperamos, Flunixin; 8/20/2009, Del Mar, Bench the Judge, Bute overage; 2/12/10, Gulfstream Park, Pinkarella, Testosterone; 4/3/2010, Hawthorne, Stephen's Got Hope, TCO2; 4/30/2010, Churchill Downs, Enriched, Omeprazole Sulfide; 8/25/2010, Del Mar, Argenta, TCO2; 2/5/2011, Santa Anita, Separate Forest, Etodolac; 9/17/2011, Fairplex Park, Naturaliste, Hydroxydantrolene.
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