Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neill could face a suspension in California after one of his horses was found to have an elevated level of total carbon dioxide, an infraction for which he previously has been punished.
The California Horse Racing Board is considering the case, which involves "milkshaking," the illegal practice of giving a horse a blend of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes. The mixture is designed to reduce fatigue and enhance performance.
O'Neill faces his third total carbon dioxide violation in California and fourth in a career that has spanned 25 years.
Speaking at Pimlico Race Course on Thursday, where he is overseeing Derby winner I'll Have Another in preparation for the May 19 Preakness, O'Neill adamantly denied the charge.
"I swear on my kids' eyes I never milkshaked a horse," O'Neill said. "We had some people in charge of California racing I think didn't like a few of us that were doing well. Anyway, it's all being heard by the courts and I'm very confident everything will be fine."
The California board could consider O'Neill's latest violation as early as May 24, although the board meeting's agenda has yet to be announced.
O'Neill's most recent violation dates from an Aug. 25, 2010, race at Del Mar in California. A blood test on his horse Argenta showed elevated levels of TCO2 before it finished eighth.
He faces penalties ranging from a minimum 90-day suspension and a $5,000 fine to a maximum 180-day suspension and fine of $15,000 depending on whether a hearing officer's report finds aggravating circumstances or not.
O'Neill would have the right to appeal any punishment; a judge could issue a stay that would allow him to continue training.
It's likely the process won't be resolved until after O'Neill is done with his bid to make I'll Have Another the sport's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
"It's really old stuff that's still in litigation. I'll probably be retired by the time they come up with a verdict," O'Neill said. "I'm very confident everything will be dropped."
O'Neill isn't the first trainer to have to answer to medication violations during the Triple Crown.
Jeff Mullins, a Californian who trained I Want Revenge, faced questions about being tripped up on tests measuring levels of sodium bicarbonate involving some of his horses when that colt was the 2009 Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite.
Rick Dutrow, trainer of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, acknowledged he regularly injected the horse with a then-legal steroid.
On Thursday, O'Neill watched I'll Have Another gallop effortlessly on a muddy track. He said the horse is in excellent form and showing no ill effects from his breathtaking run in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where the chestnut colt bolted past pacesetter Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to win.
O'Neill said I'll Have Another has gone through the usual physical and blood testing during his three races this year without problem.
"They've done everything but pick him up by the hooves and shake his ears," he said, adding that he thinks there's "zero chance" he would be suspended during the Triple Crown series.
The trainer apparently isn't going to let his problems in California have any influence on the job he's got ahead of him leading up to the Preakness.
"It's very frustrating. But I've put in about $250,000 in lawyer's fees and will let them worry about all that stuff," he said. "It won't affect us at all here. It's all so ridiculous."
He filed a federal lawsuit against the California Horse Racing Board in March 2011, suggesting the state's drug testing program could be flawed. A CHRB official said Thursday that the federal court told O'Neill he had to first resolve his issues at the administrative level before going higher.
"Through the expensive investigative work we're trying to figure out how it all happened," O'Neill said. "We've gathered a lot of data on how Lasix has an effect on the chemistry of the horse and all that stuff."
Gripping a cup of coffee and wearing a broad smile, O'Neill appeared to have not a worry in the world as he stood in front of the stakes barn while I'll Have Another received a bath.
"After running that big of a race and then it only being four days ago and here on a new track, a new barn area, he looks fantastic," O'Neill said. "His appetite is great. You can see his coat is shiny. He does look fantastic."
O'Neill opted to bring I'll Have Another to Pimlico on Monday to let the horse get acclimated with his surroundings. Because most of the other entrants won't arrive until next week, it was almost as if I'll Have Another had the place of himself.
"I thought he looked great," O'Neill said of the workout. "One of the great things about I'll Have Another is he's got such a beautiful, long stride. You saw it here today. He's maintained that on whatever surface he's on. That's what I was looking for. I just wanted to see him really stretch and he did. He looks no worse for the wear."
Neither does O'Neill, who has kept a hectic schedule since last Saturday's rousing win. If he's worried about what California racing officials are considering, it certainly isn't evident by his actions or demeanor.
"I'm having an absolute blast," O'Neill said. "Back home, I did the Jim Rome Show. I did all these cool interviews. I was at the Laker game the other night and they interviewed us, (jockey) Mario (Gutierrez) and I. It's been an absolute dream. Who knows if we'll ever do this again? Hopefully, we'll do this multiple times, but we're soaking it all up and enjoying every moment of it."
Asked if he dared think about winning the Triple Crown, O'Neill replied, "You don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Our next big one is the Preakness. Hopefully he runs huge there and obviously, if that were to happen and he comes out of it good, New York (for the Belmont) here we come."