Doug O'Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll… (Patrick McDermott / Getty…)
The bizarre and complicated world of thoroughbred blood testing and sanctions reached the mainstream Thursday, when the California Horse Racing Board penalized the trainer who has won the first two legs of the sport's Triple Crown.
The seven-person, governor-appointed board, ruling on a case that has been argued and litigated since the summer of 2010, suspended Doug O'Neill for 45 days and fined him $15,000. The penalty actually carried an additional 135 days of suspension, but that will be voided if there are no further findings involving O'Neill in the next 18 months.
O'Neill will not be subject to any penalties until July 1, which is significant because I'll Have Another, whom he has trained, will attempt to complete racing's first successful Triple Crown in 34 years when he runs in the Belmont Stakes on June 9. I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby on May 5 and the Preakness last Saturday, and O'Neill will saddle him for the Belmont.
Thursday's action, taken in closed session in a morning meeting at Hollywood Park and rendered on the personable and popular trainer's 44th birthday, will draw unprecedented — and probably unwanted — attention to the sport in the run-up to the dramatic Triple Crown event. O'Neill has repeatedly claimed no wrongdoing, and his supporters have expressed anger and dismay at the substance and timing of the charges. On the other side, animal rights groups and drug-testing hard-liners have been equally vocal.
The ruling resulted from the detection by CHRB testing officials of an elevated level of carbon dioxide in the system of a horse named Argenta, who ran eighth in a race at Del Mar on Aug. 25, 2010. The horse was part-owned by Mark Verge, a longtime friend of O'Neill's and currently a top executive at Santa Anita.
Elevated levels of carbon dioxide can be reached in various ways, sometimes naturally, or by administering a combination of baking soda, sugar and water into a horse's system through a hose in the nose. That is called "milkshaking." It is a Class 3 violation.
What may be lost in the rush to make a simple headline out of a complicated story was that the ruling penalizing O'Neill said there was no evidence he intentionally did anything illegal. The second paragraph of the ruling stated:
"The hearing officer [Steffan Imhoff], who conducted a seven-day hearing, agreed with O'Neill that the evidence demonstrated that Argenta had not been milkshaked, so milkshaking was not the cause of the TC02 [total carbon dioxide concentration] overage. He also determined that there were no suspicious betting patterns in the race. He further determined there was no evidence of any intentional acts on the part of O'Neill in connection with this incident."
The basis of the ruling, then, was racing's version of zero tolerance in testing. The original test showed elevated levels of TC02 in Argenta's blood sample, and by racing's rules the trainer is ultimately responsible.
Indeed, sources reported that O'Neill's camp was celebrating the decision Thursday, believing the report exonerated him. And the July 1 date did not loom particularly large, because O'Neill, who has already spent $250,000 in litigating the case, is likely to carry on in that vein. That could delay any punishment for years if the ruling is upheld.
With O'Neill and I'll Have Another at the center of the Triple Crown drama, the issue of the CHRB's timing on this has been much discussed. Board rules dictate action be taken within 30 days of the report, so having the O'Neill item on the agenda apparently was required.
Not clear was whether the entire thing could have been tabled until after the Belmont. One legal source told The Times that his reading of the rules allowed for that.
There was also speculation that the board members, fully aware of the hit they would take in the racing community, chose to act because doing nothing and appearing to shovel it under the rug would have created more negative speculation. By releasing the ruling now, with the wording of the report favorable to him in part, O'Neill could be characterized not as a cheater, but as a victim of technicalities.