07/14/2010 5:28PM

O'Neill shuts down stable during his 15-day suspension


Any other year, Saturday’s running of the Hollywood Gold Cup might have featured a horse from the stable of perennial local leader Doug O’Neill. After all, the guy has won the race four times – Lava Man’s triple plus the leggy gray Sky Jack – and he would have no problem winning another.

In fact, the list of Gold Cup nominees included two trained by O’Neill. Enriched, Lava Man’s half-brother, was the overpowering winner of a decent allowance race on the grass, while Kanan Dune, a high-profile claim, took an allowance race on the main track that could have set him up for a longshot try.

But they both stayed in the barn, along with the rest of the large string under O’Neill’s supervision. The boss is in the middle of a 15-day suspension, and as far as O’Neill is concerned, suspend him and the horses do time as well.

When he commenced his ban on June 30, O’Neill had a comfortable lead in the Hollywood Park trainer standings and appeared to be on his way to his fifth title at the main summer meet. The suspension stems from a over-limit TCO2 count registered by a pre-race bicarbonate test of the O’Neill-trained Stephen Got Hope at Hawthorne, just before competing in the April 5 Illinois Derby. After stumbling at the start, Stephen Got Hope finished seventh to American Lion that day, and was beaten more than 22 lengths.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Neill said from his west Los Angeles home. “I wasn’t there, and neither was my assistant, and I don’t even know who the vet was who treated our horse in Chicago.”

Given the traditional implications of trainer responsibility rules, as well as the intensity of both pre- and post-race testing these days, sending a horse out of state unaccompanied by top stable personnel would seem to be on the risky side. Still, it’s done all the time.

It is reasonable, though, for owners and their trainers to be able to compete anywhere in the country where Thoroughbred racing is sanctioned and regulated, and expect that the rules and regulations are consistent wherever they travel. O’Neill did not pursue an appeal of the mandatory 15-day suspension handed down in Illinois, but he did try for a dismissal in California, where he operates, and attempted to prove that the Illinois procedures differed from California’s. The Hollywood Park board of stewards was not convinced by O’Neill’s arguments.

In the past, trainers on suspensions have simply turned the reins over to a top assistant and gone fishing. In all but the most high-profile cases, authorities wink at the practice, and racing continues unruffled, with only the program noting a change. Before the Illinois ruling, O’Neill had never been hit with a suspension in more than 20 years as a public trainer. He did receive two prior TCO2 rulings – the most recent in January 2008 – when the penalty was a 24-hour detention for all starters for a one-month period.

“I didn’t want to make a mockery of the suspension,” O’Neill said. “In reality, when you suspend a trainer, you’re supposed to be suspending the barn. I could have just run horses under my assistant’s name. It’s certainly been done before, but I think it’s a real insult to the system.”

O’Neill also cited the prohibitive legal costs involved.

As a result, by the time the suspension ends July 15, California’s most active trainer will have gone two weeks without a starter.

“We’re very much an active, running barn, and 15 days not training and racing is a major hit financially for everybody,” O’Neill said. “My clients have been very supportive, but at the same time very upset and confused. Understandably, they wanted me to be there on top of things. They’re paying for me to be their eyes, and use my experience. To communicate to them whether or not we should be going to the track or walking, entering or not entering.”

O’Neill has been in steady communication with assistant Leandro Mora, faxing training charts daily and conferring by phone. The trainer insists something good could come from the break.

“I’m not boycotting,” O’Neill said. “But I would like to ring a bell about pre-race testing. “Why would we want to lead a horse over there if he’s got a high TCO2 count, if it is indeed a performance enhancer, and have bettors betting on a horse that’s been falsely inflated?”

There is little question that widespread TCO2 testing of Thoroughbreds was ignited by California authorities, and that the movement was spearheaded by CHRB Equine Medical Director Rick Arthur. He contends that pre-race testing for TCO2 is impractical, given that there is not enough time to do a thorough confirmation of results.

“If we had a detention barn the day of the race, maybe,” Arthur said. “But then we’d only be able to confirm results minutes before they got to the gate. As it stands right now, at least in California, the issue of TCO2 has become almost moot. There hasn’t been an overage since early 2009. But I’m convinced if I announced we were no longer testing for levels, there would be someone to take a shot by this weekend.”

That debate will continue, but in the meantime O’Neill is consoling himself and his owners with the idea that two weeks of relative inactivity is not necessarily a bad thing. No work in the afternoon, taking them over or cooling them out. No vet activity, at least involving race doses of medication. No status calls to the racing office. No pass requests for owners. No action. No income.

Somehow, in days gone by, stables survived. They survived the weeks between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in the spring. They survived Novembers and Decembers between the Oak Tree meet and the resumption of racing at Santa Anita on the day after Christmas.

“We’ll start a few at the very end of the Hollywood meet,” O’Neill said. “Then I hope we can see some benefit a nice fresh barn for Del Mar.”