Trainer Doug O'Neill and the 2013 Kentucky Derby
by Trevor Whenham - 4/28/2013
If the horse stays healthy, then Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents will be one of the three or four top favorites at post time in the Kentucky Derby. He’d get a lot of attention as the winner of one of the four biggest Derby prep races in any circumstances. This year, though, he’ll get even more attention than normal — and not all of it positive — because of trainer Doug O’Neill.
O’Neill is, to be kind, a controversial figure. He became known to the greater racing public last year as the trainer for I’ll Have Another. That colt was another Santa Anita Derby winner, though not as highly-regarded as Goldencents is coming into the Derby. He should have been, though. His win in the Derby was very impressive. There was some who argued that the win was a fluke — the product of an ideal trip. He dispelled that notion, though, by making short work of the Preakness. Triple Crown fever was in full force.
There are some nicknames that are more flattering than others. “Drug O’Neill” is one the trainer likely isn’t that fond of. Unfortunately, it is one that O’Neill has earned. He has had at least 15 drug violations during his career. Much of the controversy has centered around “milkshaking” horses — the practice of sticking a tube down a horse’s throat before a race and putting a mixture of water, baking soda, and perhaps other substances. The treatment fights fatigue because the bicarbonates generated neutralize lactic acid produced by the horse when racing, but it is also illegal. It creates a telltale raised level of carbon dioxide in the blood. O’Neill has tested over the acceptable blood level of carbon dioxide four times. No other trainer has had more than three.
Milkshaking became a big story during O’Neill’s Triple Crown run last year. In August of 2010 at Del Mar, an O’Neill horse named Argenta tested over the limit. The review process took a long time, but in the end O’Neill was handed a 45-day suspension and a $15,000 fine, along with a further 135-day suspension that would be stayed as long as he didn’t have another violation within 18 months. The ruling came down at the end of May last year — between the Preakness and Belmont. Controversially, though, it wasn’t set to start until July 1, so O’Neill was able to train I’ll Have Another in the Belmont.
Belmont Park tightened their rules before the race last year in a move that was dubbed by some as the “O’Neill Rules”. All horses had to be in a special detention barn for the three days before the race where they would be closely monitored and protected by strict security. The move made sense in the paranoid world of modern horse racing. It also fired up the imagination of conspiracy theorists because of what happened next.
Soon after moving to the detention barn, O’Neill scratched I’ll Have Another with what was described as a minor tendon injury. While that is obviously possible, critics have suggested a darker explanation. Because of the security and scrutiny, O’Neill knew he wouldn’t be able to cheat, and if he couldn’t cheat he questioned if he could win. Instead of risking it, he took the easy way out — or so the theory goes. It seems like a stretch, and I would fundamentally rule it out for virtually any trainer other than O’Neill.
The challenge with a guy like this is that you can’t ignore him — no matter how much you’d like to. Cheater or not, he is a winner. He sits seventh in earnings nationally for trainers and second behind only Bob Baffert on the West Coast. California isn’t in its golden era of racing lately, but there is no denying that winning the Santa Anita Derby twice in a row is impressive.
One advantage O’Neill has heading into this Derby season is all that he learned last time around. He was in a very bright spotlight last year because of his drug issues, but also because of the impressive wins, the seemingly strong shot at a Triple Crown, and the almost impossible story of jockey Mario Gutierrez. Having faced all that, he knows what to expect here. He’ll face plenty of scrutiny this year as well — among other storylines, his jockey, Kevin Krigger, is just the second black jockey to ride in the Derby since 1921 and is shooting to be the first black winner wince 1902. All the attention would be far more of a concern for a lot of trainers than it will be for O’Neill.
If O’Neill wins again, it’s further proof that the good guys don’t always win and that sometimes cheaters do prosper. Unfortunately, it’s far from unlikely. Goldencents is a serious contender.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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