Doug O'Neill, trainer of Triple Crown contender I'll Have Another,… (Mark Lennihan / Associated…)
ELMONT, N.Y. — If racing had its way, the news of the day here Wednesday would have been which horse drew which post position for Saturday's 144th Belmont Stakes. More specifically, which post was drawn by I'll Have Another, who will try to complete a coveted Triple Crown.
Post-position draws at the Belmont don't matter much. The race is a mile and a half, plenty of time to recover from mishaps at the start.
For the record, I'll Have Another drew the 11th starting spot in a field of 12. He started 19th in the 20-horse cavalry charge, also known as the Kentucky Derby, and still won.
The actual news of the day was related to the news of every other day since I'll Have Another won the Preakness and got the attention of so many clueless people who think a filly is a cheese steak from the city with a crack in its Liberty Bell.
Wednesday, they moved all of the Belmont starters into a separate Stakes Barn. That was so, in isolation, every move of I'll Have Another, and every move of anybody within 50 yards of the horse, can be monitored. The official release called the area "the secured Belmont Stakes Barn." The usual term is "detention barn."
Let's translate: We racing officials want to make sure the world, which is now paying attention and growing our profit, knows that Doug O'Neill will not be cheating to win our most precious piece of hardware. Think of us as the TSA of horse racing — OK, maybe that's not the best imagery — but be clear that we are watching everything. Why the other horses too? That's just so we can appear to be fair. In truth, we are Big Brother and are watching over O'Neill.
O'Neill is I'll Have Another's trainer. It used to be just that simple.
Right now, he is Al Pacino at the end of "Serpico." He keeps absorbing bullet after bullet and, somehow, keeps getting up. Even smiling while doing so.
He has become America's bad guy because, in years past, he has been cited for violations of too much carbon dioxide in the system of several of his horses. This is complicated, but it is a racing misdemeanor. O'Neill himself has pointed out, while saying he didn't do it, that everything he has been accused of is therapeutic for the horse, not performance-enhancing.
He is not Ben Johnson at Seoul or Marion Jones at Sydney, but it hasn't mattered. Baseball's Ryan Braun got off because the guy carrying his suspect sample kept it at home overnight. Braun, in current public perception, is less of a scofflaw than O'Neill. The public, blindly lap-dogging along as much of the media wades ankle-deep into the pool of information and finds an ax murderer, seems convinced that O'Neill is a cheater.
Maybe he is, but the severity of crime and preponderance of evidence are hardly worth life in perception prison.
O'Neill's guilt has been newly established because the seven-member California Horse Racing Board — presumably all choirboys and nuns themselves — fined him $15,000 and suspended him for 45 days recently over a 2010 incident. Actually, the CHRB, forced to act by law in a 30-day window, produced an intelligent compromise:
--Suspend him effective July 1, so the Triple Crown effort is not disrupted and with full knowledge that O'Neill's lawyers will string out that suspension date until we all forget;
--Put a paragraph in the official ruling that clears O'Neill of wrongdoing while pointing out that the zero-tolerance rule allows them no wiggle room for penalties. He trained the horse, he then is solely responsible. Doesn't matter if the horse was juiced up by an assistant and they had it on film; O'Neill was responsible;
--Make a ruling now, rather than announcing a delay of action that would only darken the cloud of suspicion.
Sadly, the toothpaste is out of the tube. There is no turning back.
NBC's Bob Costas, serious face and body language telling us immediately that there will be no softball questions in this interview, manages to work in the old "Drug" O'Neill line. Other people have used that label, Costas says, ever so slickly.
Sports journalism bon vivant Frank Deford goes on NPR to tell his higher-brow audience that he is rooting against I'll Have Another because the horse's connections are dirty and unworthy. To Deford, O'Neill is a cheater and owner J. Paul Reddam is a loan shark. "Shouldn't a Triple Crown champion possess a better human pedigree?" Deford asks, rhetorically.
Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat — about whom they made a movie that was, in parts, factual — publicly expressed her unhappiness with the possibility of a Triple Crown being won by this less-than-worthy trainer. That was a few weeks after she posed for pictures with O'Neill at the Kentucky Derby.
"That hurt," O'Neill says.
My wife's friend Stephanie emails excitedly about I'll Have Another but adds her feelings of discontent about the cheating trainer.
On and on.
O'Neill is so beleaguered that, when called to the podium Wednesday morning for his 45 seconds of sound bites on the draw, he immediately goes to the tape now recorded in his brain.
"I've been cleared of any wrongdoing," he says, "but it's still been a little goofy."
Nobody had asked him.
The goofiness will be over soon. Probably not soon enough for O'Neill, who says he is enjoying all this but must be wondering where the avalanche came from.
From all reports, I'll Have Another has a more than decent chance to win. That is enhanced by his inability to read or to understand Costas and Deford.