05/17/2012 2:37PM

Preakness: Many layers to Derby winner O'Neill

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Doug O’Neill scored the biggest win of his career when I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby. Questions about his history of violations have been raised in the two weeks since.

BALTIMORE – By training the winner of the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, Doug O’Neill arrived at the peak of his profession. He said it was confirmation that, given the opportunity, he could compete at the highest level of the sport.

His has been a complicated, multi-dimensional career, alternately praised for winning major races and multiple titles, yet questioned by racing authorities for violations O’Neill disputes. In the aftermath of the Derby, questions about his past were raised anew. On Wednesday, during a press conference at Pimlico just three days before his Derby winner, I’ll Have Another, was scheduled to run in the Preakness, O’Neill answered two questions about his horse before his past came up again.

By now used to the story arc, O’Neill maintained his composure and answered with patience.

“It’s been a distraction,” he admitted. “We play by the rules, and I will vigorously fight the allegations. I understand. If I didn’t win the Derby, you wouldn’t be asking.”

That’s the tradeoff.

Before May 5, O’Neill already had won three Breeders’ Cup races, the Japan Cup Dirt, the Godolphin Mile, and major stakes at Keeneland, Oaklawn, and Saratoga. He has won 28 training titles on the Southern California circuit, at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and Fairplex, along with numerous Grade 1 races on that circuit, most notably the Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, and Del Mar’s Pacific Classic.

The Derby took him to another level.

“My confidence level has never been higher. Not in a cocky way, but I feel if we get the athlete, we can get the best out of them,” said O’Neill, who is so wired to spreading the praise that the placard outside his barn says “Team O’Neill.”

“Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, they’ve won a race like the Derby,” he said. “And it gives me confidence that, yes, we are in that league.”

But the victory by I’ll Have Another meant far more to O’Neill.

O’Neill, 43, has faced numerous obstacles. His late father, Patrick, was a gambler, and not a very good one, which resulted in O’Neill’s family moving frequently when he was a child in Michigan. He is the youngest of four brothers, one of whom, Danny, died from melanoma 13 years ago. Another, Dennis, more recently staved off non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was instrumental in the purchase of I’ll Have Another for owner Paul Reddam.

Because of that past, and having two children of his own with his wife, Linette, O’Neill is frugal and quietly does countless fund-raising for cancer research.

“He doesn’t care about money,” said his best friend, Mark Verge, the chief executive at Santa Anita. “That’s just not his world.”

One of the biggest cheers for I’ll Have Another on Derby Day went up in Altadena, Calif., not far from Santa Anita, where Lisa Beck was watching the Derby at a party with her husband, Russ. Beck met O’Neill and Verge at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA in 2007, not long after her daughter Miranda was diagnosed with leukemia.

“Those two guys were amazing,” Beck said this week. “They brought so much light to the children. Doug was always very nurturing to the children. He’d bring along jockeys. It’s fun for kids in that situation to feel somewhat normal, because their immune systems are compromised.”

Miranda Beck died at age 12 in the fall of 2008. O’Neill attended the funeral. And every year since, his family – including son Daniel, 9, and daughter Kaylin, 7 – are part of a pediatric cancer walk at UCLA, with O’Neill sponsoring a team called Miranda’s Tigers.

“He’s continued to be an inspiration, with the big heart he has,” Beck said. “Any time I call him, he says, ‘I’ll do whatever you need.’ I don’t want another family to go through what we did. He and his wife are so generous.”

It all came together on Derby Day. Beck had visited Santa Anita in February, on the day of the Robert Lewis Stakes, which I’ll Have Another won as a 43-1 shot.

“I told Doug and Mark, ‘This horse is going to win the Kentucky Derby, and Miranda’s going to be on that horse,’ ” Beck said. “I was so elated when he won.”

At the Derby, O’Neill also befriended Hope Hudson, 12, from Perryville, Mo., who was there through Make-A-Wish, the foundation that grants wishes to children with severe illnesses. The morning before the Derby, at his barn, O’Neill lifted Hudson, who suffers from a brain deformity and is often confined to a wheelchair, onto the back of Lava Man, the multiple stakes-winning racehorse who is now a stable pony.

“Ever sat on $5 million?” he said to her.

This week in Baltimore, O’Neill visited the Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital on Tuesday and a local Boys and Girls Club on Wednesday.

The personal and professional lives of O’Neill are a kaleidoscope of contrasts.

Over the years, concurrent with his rise to the top of the trainer’s standings in Southern California, O’Neill has faced charges from the California Horse Racing Board that he has stepped over the line in his handling of racehorses, most notably in regard to TCO2 testing, which measures the level of carbon dioxide in a horse’s bloodstream.

The theory behind TCO2 testing is that horses with elevated levels of carbon dioxide may have been given a potion, largely consisting of bicarbonate of soda, or baking powder, designed to fend off the buildup in muscles of lactic acid, which causes fatigue. It is known euphemistically as “milkshaking.”

At Oak Tree in the fall of 2004, before the racing board conducting TCO2 testing, six trainers had horses who failed a TCO2 test administered by Oak Tree. Though Mike Mitchell was the only trainer who publicly admitted he had been informed he had a high TCO2 test, it was common knowledge that O’Neill was on that list. Rival trainers privately took to calling him “Drug O’Neill.”

O’Neill, who adamantly swears he has never given a horse a milkshake, has had a contentious relationship with the racing board ever since.

In 2005, the racing board took the highly unusual position of doing a post-race exam on Grand Appointment, who had won a stakes race for O’Neill after being claimed. The race was Sunday; the exam was done at his barn the following Thursday. O’Neill was outraged.

Asked at the time if he felt he was being singled out, O’Neill said, “There is no doubt about it.”

Nothing untoward was found regarding Grand Appointment.

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In 2006, with the racing board by then having adopted a formal TCO2 penalty, O’Neill’s horses were forced to run out of a detention barn for 60 days after one of his horses tested positive for TCO2. That summer, after Lava Man won the Pacific Classic, Murray Johnson, who trained fourth-place finisher Perfect Drift, insinuated publicly that Lava Man had a high level of TCO2. Johnson later apologized, saying he was under stress from the heart attack suffered by his visiting father only days before the race, but the racing board decided to defuse that incident. It put out a statement saying all eight runners were tested for TCO2, and the horse testing with the lowest level was Lava Man.

In January 2008, O’Neill was given a $7,500 fine and a 30-day suspension by the board for having his horse Chicks Rule test for a high level of TCO2 after a winning race at Santa Anita. The suspension was stayed, with O’Neill given a one-year probation.

In April 2010, O’Neill’s horse Stephen’s Got Hope was said by Illinois authorities to have an elevated level of TCO2 after his seventh-place finish in the Illinois Derby. O’Neill was fined $1,000 and suspended 15 days.

That summer, the California racing board sought penalties against O’Neill after his horse Argenta was found to have a high level of TCO2 after an eighth-place finish in a race at Del Mar. Faced with a potentially lengthy suspension, O’Neill vigorously fought the charge.

Through many stops and starts, the case is about to be adjudicated. At the racing board’s monthly meeting Wednesday – O’Neill’s 44th birthday − a hearing officer will present a recommendation to the board during its closed, executive session. The board has the option of adopting, modifying, or even rejecting the recommendation, which could range from finding O’Neill innocent, to a 180-day suspension. Even if there is a penalty, it would not interfere with the Belmont Stakes on June 9, according to Mike Marten, a spokesman for the board.

O’Neill said he has spent $250,000 fighting the charges.

“It’s a bummer,” he said, “but we’re trying to figure out what is going on. I know we have played by the rules. I’m confident in the end it’s going to come out right.”

The racing board also investigated O’Neill after his horse Burna Dette, who was taking a big class drop, fractured a cannon bone in a claiming race and was euthanized in August 2010 at Los Alamitos. The board determined it had insufficient evidence to pursue action against O’Neill.

O’Neill admits that the cumulative effect of all this has impacted the way he trains. Much of his success has come with claiming horses. The best claim who went on to fame was Lava Man, a $50,000 claim who won more than $5.1 million for O’Neill, including three runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup. Fleetstreet Dancer, his Japan Cup Dirt winner, was claimed for $40,000. Informed won the Californian after being claimed for $25,000. And earlier this year, O’Neill won the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile with the former claimer Willyconker.

“I still love the claiming game, and I realize, without it, I wouldn’t be here, but I’ve tried to become a more patient trainer that way,” O’Neill said. “You’re trying to find out a lot about a horse in a short period of time, and then you lead them over hoping to be competitive without always knowing as much as you would with a horse you’ve had for a long time.

“The flip side is that I’ve probably gotten caught up in running more times than I should, so I’m trying to do a better job of that. I enjoy the claiming game, but that part of the game does come with added stress. If I can manage that better, I’ll have a healthier life. By no means am I out of the claiming game. But I’m approaching it a different way, a more conservative way.”

O’Neill was first exposed to racing as a youth in Michigan with his father, whom he described as “an Archie Bunker-kind of guy.” After moving to California, O’Neill became best friends at school and at the track with Verge, whose father, Arthur – a former registrar at Santa Monica City College − had a long-lasting impact on O’Neill that he draws on today.

“Other than my parents, he’s been the greatest mentor on how to live your life,” O’Neill said of Arthur Verge, 84. “He says he’d rather have a 60 percent friend than a 100 percent enemy. If people are angry with me and upset, I try to find out why, try to not be defensive.”

O’Neill is relentlessly positive, but is far more low-key than Mark Verge, who is frenetic. They make a good match. Verge calls O’Neill “Wheels,” a moniker he placed on O’Neill when he was inserted as a pinch runner for O’Neill during a baseball game at St. Monica’s High School. Their bond solidified further when O’Neill’s brother, Danny, died. Years earlier, Verge also had lost an older brother.

“Danny was 6-2, 230, and to see Doug carrying him around at the end, when he weighed 110 pounds, that was rough,” Verge said. “That’s why we try to keep it positive. My dad lost both his parents before he was 14, and a sister when she was 17. You see that, and you know that we’ve got it made.”

Said O’Neill: “Mr. Verge, his kindness, when you’re first around him, some people think it’s fake, but you realize he likes to see the good in everything. Some of what has happened to me since the Derby drives me nuts, but I’ve been down this road before, and I know the way.”