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Jay Hovdey: O'Neill getting ready for his second close-up
By Jay Hovdey
We’ll find out soon enough if there is a statute of limitations on heightened media scrutiny, or if Doug O’Neill will get credit for time served last year when he stage dives back into the Triple Crown mosh pit next month with Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents.
For those who have just joined the conversation, from the moment O’Neill won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with Paul Reddam’s I’ll Have Another his record of regulatory violations was like red meat to the vast majority of the national media that treats horse racing like a carnival sideshow.
As a result, O’Neill had to face blaring and sometimes inaccurate reports from such heavyweight outlets as CNN, the New York Times, and "Real Sports," along with lead paragraphs like this, from a widely disseminated Associated Press story by Justin Pritchard:
"The affable man with the horse that may become the first Triple Crown winner in more than a generation can’t seem to outrun his unflattering nickname: ‘Drug’ O’Neill."
Never mind that the AP story went on to put O’Neill’s record in unsensational perspective alongside other trainers with horses running in the 2012 Belmont Stakes, or that a noted racing regulator was quoted as saying of O’Neill, "There are a lot of people in racing that have records similar to his."
The O’Neill narrative picked up steam after I’ll Have Another won the Preakness, then controversy was cranked to 11 when New York officials put all the Belmont starters in the same detention barn leading up to the final leg of the Triple Crown. The New York decision seemed nothing more than a thinly veiled public relations reaction to a ruling handed down that O’Neill finally was ordered to serve a California suspension for a violation from 2010.
When the carnival ended, and I’ll Have Another was scratched with a leg injury on the day before the Belmont Stakes, O’Neill was too exhausted to even breathe a sigh of relief that, at the very least, his media ordeal was over.
Time heals all, and it’s possible O’Neill might be a glutton for punishment. Late last year, Showtime’s fledgling "60 Minutes Sports" came knocking at the stable door with a request to follow the trainer’s every move in hopes the O’Neill stable would head back to the Derby, or at least provide an interesting ride. The show, now airing its fourth episode, is spinoff of the same "60 Minutes" franchise that gave Zenyatta a big wet kiss in fall 2010, before her final start. It also is hoping to follow the lead of HBO’s "Real Sports" niche of hard-hitting sports journalism.
Anyway, O’Neill agreed, and the cameras have been following him ever since.
"We got a pretty good crash course in the media last year," O’Neill said. "From that experience, I could tell they weren’t going in with a negative approach. I know that anyone who’s fairly new to the game and interested in it will have questions about injuries and drug violations. That’s normal, and I did the best trying to answering them."
Goldencents will arrive at the Derby bearing gifts for the media of a black jockey from the Virgin Islands named Kevin Krigger and an ownership that includes Rick Pitino, coach of the recently crowned NCAA basketball champions from the University of Louisville. As in Louisville, Kentucky.
Still, it will be the same O’Neill, excited at the chance, affable on cue, and probably sporting another growth of playoff beard. His smile will last as long as it takes for that first press conference question, "How do you feel about what happened last year?" and variations on "Have you stopped beating your wife?" So, to save everyone time, here is a list of O’Neill’s official transgressions since I’ll Have Another was scratched.
On July 12, 2012, O’Neill was fined $400 by Hollywood Park’s stewards for the late declaration of a horse. The stewards minutes regarding the case state that the trainer "accidentally medicated one of his runners, preventing that horse from running."
On July 22, 2012, O’Neill was fined $300 for the late registration of a horse as an authorized bleeder.
O’Neill began his suspension on Aug. 19, 2012, and returned on Sept. 28. During that period the O’Neill horses were trained by his assistant, Leandro Mora. The Mora operation had no rulings against it, but the stable did win 10 races at Del Mar, including a hot maiden race with Goldencents, and took the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing with Handsome Mike. But back to Doug.
On Nov. 17, 2012, O’Neill was fined $750 for failure to report that a horse had been gelded since its last start.
On Dec. 7, 2012, O’Neill was fined $400 for the late declaration of a horse who had been administered penicillin.
That’s it. Go crazy. On a related theme, O’Neill was kicking himself for the way he had prepared Goldencents for the San Felipe Stakes on March 9 – his first race in two months – in which the colt chased a fast pace and faded to fourth, conclusively beaten by Hear the Ghost and Flashback.
"He was so fresh last time," O’Neill said. "In his last work before the San Felipe, we had him go six furlongs, and I have a horse jump in halfway through who can run and was flying. I don’t know where I came up with that, but for some reason I thought it was a good idea. Goldencents was trying to settle, now this fresh horse jumps in. They go in 1:10 and change with a medium gallop out. It was a fast time, and a bad work."
Then again, a good horse can overcome almost anything. As a result of the turnaround by Goldencents in the Santa Anita Derby, "60 Minutes Sports" finds itself on the bandwagon of a bona fide Kentucky Derby contender. The O’Neill segment of "60 Minutes Sports" is scheduled to debut May 1.
"I guess I have faith in humanity sometimes," O’Neill said with a self-deprecating laugh. "They’ve been nothing but awed by the business and the sport. But if they butcher me or butcher the game, I’ll apologize to everybody and promise never to do Showtime again."
Excellent article, Jay. It was well-written & fair, something that has not been on display very much by journalists writing about Doug O'Neill in the past. Doug is an excellent trainer & a very nice man. The atmosphere in his barn is upbeat yet professional, and the horses like him and thrive in their environment. Goldencents is a very good horse, and he is maturing in attitude & ability at the right time. I'm thrilled Kevin Krigger is getting his shot at riding in the KY Derby, and thrilled Doug O'Neill is getting a second shot in back-to-back years at winning it all once again. I'll Have Another and Goldencents are horses that are very different in personality, but both are extremely talented and learned very well under Doug's tutelage. He knows how to nurture & promote the best of a horse's talents & assets and how to bring out greatness in a great horse, experimenting with the best ways to do so for each horse. I'll Have Another was an all-heart, professional, kick butt, fierce, never-say-die warrior on the race track, and Goldencents is proving to be a determined warrior colt, too. Doug brought out that winning attitude in both of them. I hope this time around down the KY Derby/Triple Crown trail Doug will be treated with much more dignity and consideration than the way he was treated by an overwrought media last year. It would be a step in the right direction.
The Drug O'neill saga is bad publicity for horse racing. The worst part, is that Doug is no different than 80% of the trainers in the good old USA. But, because Doug and Drug are so similar, it makes for a good catch phrase. A big percentage of his violations, are because of poor timing. I think that we all have been late for something sometime. A perfect example of timing, is that a horse in a race is only permitted a certain level of bute in their system, after the race. Bute is a medicine like aspirin, it can relieve a certain amount of inflammation and/or pain, such as mild muscle soreness or arthiritis. The problem is, that many active race horses are on a continuous dosage of bute, and you are never sure how much buildup is in the blood or urine. I would venture to say that guys like Doug and Rudy, don't have a specialist in medication, on their staff, but the Bafferts and Pletchers do. Doug and Rudy depend on Jose, the groom, to give the meds, and bad timing pinches them more often than the other pros.
You reap what you sow.....this fragmented industry has failed to act when there is an issue, pretending it is not an issue and kept kicking the can down the road....does not matter whether it is the breeding, trainer, race day medication or whatever....
Been around a lot of trainers and O'Neill is one of the NICEST GENTS i've ever had the pleasure of meeting...and win or lose...he and his buddies always have a great time. Great to see nice people excelling and enjoying the ride.
one thing is for sure once they are caught and get watched the win % drops..that goes for oneill who is now at 14%...rudy Rodriguez in ny who is now trending down from around 36% winners...and im sure pletcher and bafferts lofty numbers would come down too if watched carefully but they might be too big to fail..others whose numbers have dropped scott lake, steve assmussen,biancone...it would be nice if this years derby had extra surveillance.
What is so ironic about all of the O'Neill saga is his violation last year was not about drugs! Yet, trainers like Pletcher have been given a virtual pass, Pletcher HAS had drug violations, as have a number of other well-known trainers, and I believe Pletcher served a suspension. I took the time to read the entire ruling on O'Neill, and his only real violation was that of the "trainer is ultimately responsible" rule, and the violation itself was questionable because it was for elevated levels of HCo2, a natural substance that the ruling said could have many causes including the way a horse metabolizes legal drugs, feed, etc. It also admitted that it hardly made sense that O'Neill would deliberately tamper with female horses in the manner suspected, as the raising of HC02 levels was usually found to be effective only in males to influence the outcome of a race! The way that all of this was reported was shameful in the extreme and irresponsible. O'Neill for his part kept his composure, never losing patience, always being polite and patient, even when the questioning was often obviously designed to elicit a reaction from him. I do not know O'Neill personally, and live far away from CA with no direct connection to the sport.
I must say O'Neill's percentages have dropped. He sits somewhere around 10% which is believable. Back off the guy until he's caught again.
Good luck with that. Illhaveanother wasnt one-dimensional. His running style was versatile. Goldencents needs the lead and he is nowhere near among the fastest. Good luck taking this crew around the track.
Dru_ O'Neil is a bad dude this guy has been popped what 14 times he is the West Coast version of Vyjacks trainer Rudy it is a joke and CHRB is a joke. When you suspend someone hold them accountable for what they are doing! Suspend the guy for the full term stated do not lessen the days actually with all of his infractions he should be banned for a minimum of 1 year or even better do what they did to the other great guy Dutrow ban him for 10 and maybe just maybe he will get it. Please do not comment on what a great guy he his he is bottom of the food chain
Glad to see Doug has cleaned up his act since he was suspended. Most claiming trainers I believe medicate their horses just to keep them painless enough to train. Maybe THAT lead to all the prior violations as daily meds build up in a system and aren't easily expelled by lasix....unless more than the allowed amount is administered. Which would lead to dehydration and TCO2 overages as in Doug's last suspension. Either way, I feel it is better to work on a horse and give it proper time to heal vs meds. Maybe with Doug's new success and elevation to the national level he will maintain this new agenda. Good luck.