12/22/2014 9:02AM

O'Neill focuses on restoring tarnished reputation

Barbara D. Livingston
Doug O'Neill has three runners on Friday's opening-day card.

ARCADIA, Calif. – On Nov. 3, two days after Goldencents won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile for the second consecutive year, the 4-year-old colt was vanned from Santa Anita to Ontario airport for a flight to Kentucky.

Earlier that afternoon, owners Glenn Sorgenstein and Josh Kaplan hosted a going-away party for Goldencents at trainer Doug O’Neill’s stable in the Santa Anita barns. The get-together had one notable absentee, O’Neill, who was in the midst of a suspension for a medication violation in New York in 2012 and was not permitted in the barn area.

O’Neill had his own send-off for Goldencents. He and his family met the horse van at the airport.

“We were on the tarmac for a couple of hours,” O’Neill recalled earlier this month. “We walked him to the plane. That was pretty emotional. He was a special horse.”

:: SANTA ANITA OPENING DAY: Get PPs, watch Friday's card live

That was the closest O’Neill was allowed to the horses in his stable during his suspension, which ended last week. Since then, his routine is back to normal. O’Neill is overseeing a 90-horse stable in the mornings and watching races in the afternoons.

On Friday’s opening day at Santa Anita, O’Neill has three runners on the nine-race program, including Ramona’s Wildcat in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes and Frensham in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes.

For 2015, O’Neill is tasked with trying to find another runner as prominent as Goldencents, or I’ll Have Another, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby. He is eager for the return of Bad Read Sanchez, a 2-year-old who was third in the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar in August, his most recent start.

More importantly, O’Neill admits he must restore his reputation, which has been battered by frequent medication violations in recent years.

“I want to do things better and smarter,” he said. “I want to be ready to come back in a better way.”

To achieve that, O’Neill says greater care will be taken on basic stable routines, most notably medication protocols, he said.

“You might see less starters, but you’ll see better efforts,” O’Neill said. “At times, we might have been a little sloppy.”

Security has been enhanced. During O’Neill’s suspension, a video surveillance system was installed in the Santa Anita stable that can be accessed via tablets and mobile phones by O’Neill and assistants Leandro Mora, Steve Rothblum, and Jack Sisterton.

The new approach comes more than two months after O’Neill dominated racing headlines for more than a week because of the New York medication violation. In late September, O’Neill was given a 45-day suspension by the New York State Gaming Commission for a class 2 medication violation at Belmont Park in 2012, a penalty he disputed.

The New York violation occurred at a time when O’Neill was on probation with the California Horse Racing Board for a medication violation at Del Mar in 2010. In a ruling regarding that case, issued by the racing board in May, 2012, O’Neill was suspended 180 days, but 135 days were stayed provided O’Neill did not have a violation for medications in classes 1, 2, or 3 in an 18-month period. The New York infraction occurred during the probation period.

As a result of the New York positive, O’Neill reached a stipulated agreement with the California Horse Racing Board in early October that reduced the 135-day suspension for the probation violation to 45 days, with 90 days stayed. The California suspension began on Oct. 9 and ran through Nov. 22. The New York suspension began Nov. 3 and ended Dec. 17. The penalties ran concurrently for a 19-day period.

:: DRF Live: Get real-time updates and insights from DRF reporters and handicappers on Friday

O’Neill is on probation until April 2016 with the California Horse Racing Board. Any medication violation in classes 1, 2, or 3 drugs during that time would result in the restoration of the stayed 90-day suspension, as well as a severe penalty for any new infraction. Such a violation could essentially be the end of his career.

Last week, O’Neill was eager to put all of this behind him when he returned to the stable. But it did not mean the team missed a chance to have fun with his return. O’Neill arrived at 5 a.m. to a barn that was pitch black, with no employees in sight, just horses sticking heads out of stalls.

“I thought the power was out,” O’Neill said.

The staff – assistants, grooms, and hot walkers – was hiding around the corner. When they knew O’Neill had arrived, they and walked into the barn en masse for a surprise greeting.

“It was pretty cool,” he said.

Moments later, the team was back to work.

“It was a long [suspension],” O’Neill said. “You can’t go to the barn and go to the races, it’s tough. I learned that I love the sport and I love the horses and I love my team. But I’ve got to do better.”