01/31/2008 1:00AM

O'Neill facing penalty

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Doug O'Neill, the leading trainer in California in the last year, had a starter test in excess of the permitted level of bicarbonate, or total carbon dioxide, at Santa Anita last month, O'Neill said Wednesday.

It is the second time in the last two years that O'Neill has had a starter test in excess of the permitted level of bicarbonate. He had a similar infraction at Hollywood Park in May 2006.

The most recent penalty could result in a fine or suspension or both for O'Neill, because an excessive level of bicarbonate is classified as a Class 3 violation, liable to affect performance.

As part of an agreement between racetracks and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, O'Neill starters will be quarantined in a 24-hour prerace detention barn for a period of 60 days, but the starting date of the detention period has not been determined. In addition, the activity of his stable will be under surveillance by track security personnel for a period of 75 days concurrent with the 60-day detention barn period.

O'Neill was informed of the infraction by California Horse Racing Board officials earlier this week, he said. The name of the horse involved was not available. Racing board officials would not confirm the test findings.

O'Neill said he thinks he's the victim of tampering.

"It's so simple to take a handful of bicarbonate or something with baking soda and throw it into the feed tub," he said.

O'Neill said he is considering hiring private security personnel to monitor his stable.

A high level of carbon dioxide is attributed to the presence of alkalizing agents, delivered through what are referred to as milkshakes, which are believed to give horses more stamina.