08/22/2012 2:52PM

Hovdey: O’Neill may be beached, but the barn is on steady course

Shigeki Kikkawa
Richard’s Kid will be making his first start for his new barn in the Pacific Classic.

Doug O’Neill has missed saddling a big horse in a big race before. It’s the nature of the game in this globally oriented age, and it helps to have an assistant trainer you can count on to set the tack right.

O’Neill stayed home in March of 2007 when Spring at Last journeyed halfway around the globe to win the $1 million Godolphin Mile. Neither did he make the trip to Tokyo in November of 2005 when he sent stable star Lava Man to the $1.8 million Japan Cup Dirt. And in the summer of 2007, when Lava Man was going for his third straight victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup, O’Neill was on a long-planned holiday with his family in Ireland, celebrating his mother’s 70th birthday. Lava Man won without him.

“Of the team, if there is anyone that didn’t need to show up on game day, it would be me,” O’Neill told Daily Racing Form at the time. “I’m least important.”

Those sentiments will be fully tested over the coming month or so as O’Neill serves the 40-day suspension he agreed to swallow without further protest after his lawyers and the California Horse Racing Board negotiated the final pieces from a pair of high total carbon dioxide violations in 2010. The board ruled that there was no evidence O’Neill purposefully administered a substance that elevated the carbon dioxide levels, but that he had to take responsibility for the high tests nonetheless.

Justice dealyed is usually justice confused, and the fine points and precedents of the O’Neill case will be studied for years to come – especially in regards to the timing that put the announcement of the suspension ruling smack in the middle of O’Neill’s giddy run with I’ll Have Another during this year’s Triple Crown. According to racing board rules and regulations, the terms of the suspension ban O’Neill from all California racetracks – backside and front – and forbid him from benefiting financially from any horse running from the barn that bears his name, although there is nothing specific about who O’Neill can talk to from his banished vantage point or what he can talk about.

“Out of respect for the CHRB and the spirit of the suspension, I’m going cold turkey,” O’Neill said from his L.A. home Tuesday. “I will be talking to my brother Dennis, who has been very involved. And I do have contact with owners. But as far as day-to-day contact with the barn, I’m not going to push that. If they were to check my phone records during this time they’ll see no contact with the barn.

“In my mind the penalty is in place to give a guy a gut shot,” O’Neill went on. “And it has. Believe me, I’m not in a good spot right now because of it. With the exception of a cruise we once took, I don’t think I’ve been away from the races for more than a couple weeks since I was ten.”

To O’Neill, 44, “the barn” primarily means assistant trainer Leandro Mora, who has worked for O’Neill since 2002, now elevated to head trainer and appearing as the only name on the program for the duration of the suspension. Mora has had to secure his own worker’s compensation insurance and set up his own training accounts, although, according to O’Neill, funding for continuity of the stable payroll will come from the entity “Team O’Neill – Head Trainer Leandro Mora.” Team O’Neill has about a hundred horses between Del Mar and Hollywood Park.

Had O’Neill’s suspension been 60 days or more, his name would had to have been erased from all stable trappings, from tack boxes to the T-shirts worn by his staff. Instead, the O’Neill brand will continue to fly high, splashed on the exterior of his barns at Del Mar and Santa Anita, his green and white monogramed webbings untroubled and his “DO” still emblazoned on blinkers worn by the horses.

One of them will be Richard’s Kid, a Thoroughbred of considerable commerce and travel, who apparently has a lip tattoo that reads “For Sale.” He will be running for O’Neill – check that, Mora – for the first time in Sunday’s $1 million Pacific Classic after winning the 2009 and 2010 versions of the same race for trainer Bob Baffert, and being purchased by a partnership of O’Neill clients in a deal that closed last Saturday. O’Neill’s suspension started Sunday.

Richard’s Kid, a 7-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid, began life in Maryland and was first trained by Dickie Small (for whom he is named), then sold to Arnold Zetcher and Baffert, then sold to Zabeel Racing (Sheik Mohammed’s son Rashid) but kept with Baffert and taken to Dubai for the 2010 World Cup, then back to California, then back to Dubai for racing there in 2011 and 2012 while trained by Satish Seemar, then back to California for Baffert, who ran Richard’s Kid three times this summer before his sale last week.

As a result, Richard’s Kid was hardly surprised when he woke up in a new stall last Sunday morning, although he probably didn’t have much memory of one of the last guys he saw the night before.

“I flew back to Long Beach on Saturday night from Arlington Park, where we ran a couple of horses, then drove to Del Mar to be with my family,” O’Neill said. “I stopped by the track and gave a lot of loving to welcome that little bay, then walked out of the barn area at 11:59 p.m. and haven’t been there since.”

In serving what by modern standards is a lengthy ban, O’Neill finds himself in tall company. Todd Pletcher was set down for 45 days at the beginning of 2007 and for another 10 days in February of 2010. Steve Asmussen was grounded six months in late 2006 and into 2007. Between them they have won seven of the last eight Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer.

O’Neill hopes someday to be known for the one rather than the other. In the meantime he is determined to “make lemonade out of lemons,” while conceding there is potential fallout from his penalty.

“I want to be a good representative of the great game of horse racing,” O’Neill said. “The last thing I want is for someone to hear my name and think, ‘If that guy is doing good, that business is in trouble.’

“As far as clients are concerned, hopefully I won’t lose many, if any, during this time, but I surely can’t take that for granted,” O’Neill added. “Hopefully when they show up and I’m not there they’ll see the horses are in great hands. I am blessed with an amazing crew that’s had very little turnover. They really don’t need my ugly mug around there barking out orders every day.”

And so O’Neill will be glued to the TV on Sunday watching the Pacific Classic, a race he won in 2006 with Lava Man. Asked who he liked, he answered without hesitation.

“I like Leandro Mora’s horse,” he said.

[Complete coverage of racing at Del Mar: News, PPs, and video]

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nice story Jay
mikey More than 1 year ago
This is the same as a manager in baseball being thrown of the game.He is in the clubhouse sending info to who took over.This is a joke Oneil must not be able to talk to owner's or his assistant or anyone in the racing barn.Just hit him with a 250 000 .00 fine too pay back some of his illgotten gain's.All these guy's understand is $$$$$$$ day's off are a joke.All major sport's have a limit on foul's before you are out of the game.Racing has an unlimited #####.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
This is why these suspensions don't deter trainers from violating the rules a month and 10 day vacation with his horses still running under his assistant is not a punishment.its a joke.and let's face it the reason the stewards in new York and California went after oneill is not because of some carbon overage on a horse that finished up the track,there's something more going on,either they know something is going on and can't make it public or they suspect it and can't prove it ,so they get him for something else and embarrass him just as the spotlight is shinning brightest by announcing the suspension on the verge of a triple crown run.either way he gets a vacation,assures his owners nothings changed and in a month it's business as usual.now a 5 or 10 year suspension if it was ever enforced would get everybody's attention,things might even change.
Ann Maree More than 1 year ago
In this day and age of instant everything, perception tends to be reality for most people. Discernment and critical thinking have long been rejected as requiring too much time and effort, and why bother, let others feed us our daily pablum of sensationalistic, “yellow” journalism. Thank you, Jay, for bringing out that O'Neill's suspension had nothing to do with illegal or even legal drugs, for that matter. I do wish these facts had been brought to the fore during the TC run. I took the time to look up the ruling, and I read it, every word, and no where in that ruling was he found guilty of any drug activity, legal or otherwise. He was suspected at the time of the practice of "milkshaking", which the ruling found him not to have been guilty, but the ruling even goes into some detail that the newer way to administer the concoction (orally) of totally legal ingredients is not in itself illegal, either! It was kind of ironic that the horse they chose to use in the investigation was a female (apparently, those who do practice “milkshaking” don’t generally use females), and she finished I think it was 8th! As you point out in your article, his suspension is under the "trainer is ultimately responsible" rule for the elevaed levels of TCO2, which the ruling, again in some detail, admits a horse's feed, slow metabolizing of lasix or other legal drugs, could cause this reading to be above normal, permitted limits. I do not like trainers who operate on the edge and who violate the rules. But, in this case, especially in the press, the TV commentators, especially and most notably Bob Costas, who neither he nor his producers did anything other than throw mud. They never even read the ruling, because if they had, they most certainly could not have handled the reporting as they did. I especially and vehemently condemn O'Neill's fellow trainer, Wayne Lukas, and Barry Irwin, of Team Valor, (separate and apart from the fact that I have admired each of these individuals for their stand against raceday meds) who I do not think came out against Todd Pletcher or Steve Asmusson, both of which were found guilty of drug violations. It looked very much like the "good old boys" were taking shots at a trainer and the connections he represented because their blood just wasn't "blue" enough. Sorry, but that is they way it looked to me, and to several others who followed this closely during the entire TC run. It was shameful, it was dirty, and about the only thing you could really find fault with O’Neill for was bad timing. He should have gotten this issue dealt with long ago instead of dragging it out over legal issues for nearly 2 years. I’m sure he is kicking himself many times over for not “getting it over with” sooner. He and his team conducted themselves admirably and with a great deal of restraint throughout the whole ordeal. Very nice article, Jay. Thanks again for some nice reporting.
Suzanne Thomas More than 1 year ago
Hey, Jay, don't you mean "benched" instead of "beached?"
Suzanne Thomas More than 1 year ago
When I think of "beached," I think of a beached whale or dolphin. When I think of "benched," I think of a baseball or basketball player who is sitting out and not playing in the game.
MaryAnn Donahue More than 1 year ago
I think Jay used "beached" because the racing is at Del Mar these days of O'Neil's suspension. Jay is such a fine and attuned wordsmith that I suspect he chose the word he intended. Then again, I could be wrong.
GOODWIN More than 1 year ago
Anyone buy the "shoulder injury" story about Bodemeister? There certainly is something rotten in Denmark, and the racing "officials" seem to manage to be looking the other way. this sport will never clean itself up - there is too much payola goin' 'round.
Quite A Dude More than 1 year ago
I don't think Dr. Larry Bramlage who diagnosed the horse and is one of the most highly respected Vets in America is accustomed to issuing a false report.
Tom More than 1 year ago
To the horse racing industry- I used to spend probably 1000-10000 a year gambling on your sport even up to 2010, I stopped all together spending my hard earned money gambling on this sport in 2010 they are too many fishy races even for the seasoned gamblers, something ain't right especially lately, so many races finish completely off forum especially on mondays-tuesdays, its a wonder to me why anyone throws their money away on this sport. I did well as an everyday horse racing degenerate but even i know when something is fishy in the entire sport. Get the bad owners,trainers and jockeys out of this sport before its too late or by 2015 you will be the downward spiral and offically follow the lead set by greyhound racing and you ceas to exist by 2020
Steve Barbera More than 1 year ago
I feel you, I have been doing this since1989. In the 90's I had to adjust to simulcasting from many different tracks. I did real well until synthetic came along. I used to bet a grand or two every Saturday, spread over two tracks with the big G1 races. Now I only play Triple Crown in the spring and Breeders Cup in the fall. Stay away from the smaller tracks, they cheat every way possible. I know a few trainers that do unbelievable things to their horses. The bigger tracks have security teams with binoculars and cameras to stop the cheating, oh and they look for unusual betting tendencies too. Technology will help a lot in the future.
Tom More than 1 year ago
This proves the title of trainer isn't really that important. Trainers (big name-muliti-horse trainers at least) don't do the dirty work or the grind of getting a horse ready for the starting gate. They are merely the figurehead- the CEO of sort of the horse- does Walmart shut down when the CEO takes a vacation, the answer is no, there many workers doing the work to keep walmart open. The CEO (horse trainer) is merely an interchangeable name. If you agree or disagree with ONeil's suspension, it doesn't really matter. But if you wanna be tough about the enforcing the rules/suspensions make it so any horse that has run under the O'neil name can't run for the length the suspension or up to a year (possible exception for claimers) , shut the whole barn without paychecks all the good honest help will abandon the O'neil barn in a heartbeart. make it next to impossible for a trainer to recover from an suspension and and 2nd suspension impose a death penalty to that trainer and his operation. Either The horse racing industry gets tough on this or they will go down to PETA and government intervention if they prove over and over again they can't police their own industry. The honest people owners,trainers need to get tough and get tough now on the rules and regulations for this sport before its too late
Chris More than 1 year ago
This is funny because in 2007 i know for fact a trainer that got suspended for 15 day's and the CHRB investagator's were at the barn at 6:00 am to make sure that there wasn't any thing in the barn that had the trainer's name or anything that could be seen ( wall boxes , foot boxes, saddle towels , helment covers , jackets ) NOTHING !!!!!! YOU MIGHT WANT TO SEE WHEN THE RULE'S CHANGED ?
redboy More than 1 year ago
BUSTED !!!!!!!!!!!!!