Derby-winning trainer O'Neill deals with success and suspicions
Most of them never see it coming. They work training racehorses, getting up before dawn to labor in a space where big trucks regularly pull up alongside their office and haul away piles of hay that are saturated with horse manure and urine. They might be successful in their own world (wealthy, even), but to the broader universe of sports and culture they are anonymous.
And they're all trying to win the Kentucky Derby, because that's the pinnacle of the profession, but also in some small way because that's what everyone outside the racetrack asks them: Horse trainer. Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby? The question isn't fair, because the Kentucky Derby is incredibly difficult to win even if you happen to bring the best and fastest horse to Louisville on the first Saturday in May, which in itself is a very long shot. But the question gets asked just the same.
Then every year somebody actually wins the Kentucky Derby. Late on that Saturday afternoon he runs onto the track at Churchill Downs, yelling and crying and hugging people and then Bob Costas is asking him questions for 15 million viewers on NBC, and then there's a party that goes all night and he wakes up Sunday morning to find his life changed and the hard part just beginning.
Suddenly a lot of people are paying attention to horse racing and it's as if there is only one horse and one trainer in the entire world, so he gets to answer all the questions. The cell phone voicemail fills up in three hours. There is a small army of media at the barn every morning asking foolish, uninformed questions. Nine years ago Barclay Tagg trained a gelding named Funny Cide and basked in the glow on Saturday evening after winning the Derby. Hall of Fame celebrity trainer D. Wayne Lukas marched across the paddock to shake his hand. Two days later I called Tagg's cell and he answered in exasperation: "This is exhausting.'' By the time he reached Belmont Park three weeks later to chase the Triple Crown the poor guy was snapping at anyone that asked a question.
Last year it was transplanted Englishman Graham Motion who brilliantly trained Animal Kingdom to a Derby win. Nine days after the Derby I sat in his office at the Fair Hill Training Center in rural Maryland when Motion fell into a desk chair and shook his head slowly in amazement. "I've tried to accommodate everyone,'' he said. "The volume is really quite remarkable.''
This happens because the Derby-winning trainer (and owner, to a lesser extent) becomes, for a brief period, the face of the racing industry. In the middle of May, it's an exciting industry, evoking Secretariat and Seattle Slew; yet it's not an entirely healthy industry. So the trainer is asked to comment on simple racing matters like how to win the Preakness to bigger picture issues like potentially changing the makeup of the Triple Crown (because it's become so difficult to win) to much heavier subjects like race-day medication and the abuse of racehorses through over-racing.
Today Doug O'Neill is that guy, because his horse, I'll Have Another, won the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. O'Neill, 43, would seem on the surface perfectly suited to carrying the public relations ball for 2012. He's comfortable in a room full of people or with a microphone or camera in his face. He leans to the extroverted side of life.
Back in mid-April, when I was planning a trip to California to report on stories in several sports, I texted O'Neill to see if he could meet me at Hollywood Park one morning to talk about his Derby chances. O'Neill's response: "Come on out, my man.'' I could almost see his round, bearded, smiling face as he typed the response.
(I had first met O'Neill in 2007, when he was on fire and pointing several horses toward the Derby. Two of them got there: Great Hunter and Liquidity and finished far up the track. I hung out with O'Neill and his buddies for a day at Santa Anita. His brother Dennis was there, still recovering from cancer treatment. His lifelong friend, Mark Verge, who is now the CEO at Santa Anita, was there, too. And it was a good day. O'Neill is good company, which doesn't mean anything more than that he's good company).
On that day in April -- Wednesday, April 18, to be precise, 17 days before the Kentucky Derby -- O'Neill and I sat at a quaint little picnic table outside and watched as the great Lava Man, now used as a stable pony for I'll Have Another, among other horses, walked circles around the shedrow. We made small talk about barn maintenance and ran through I'll Have Another's pre-Derby campaign. O'Neill seemed pretty confident, but then again so did rival trainer Mark Casse and his horse, Prospective, who would finish 37 lengths behind the winner in the Derby. Seventeen days before the Derby, they all sound confident.
Eventually the conversation took a turn. Since I had first interviewed O'Neill in 2007, he had found himself at the center of a controversy surrounding the banned practice of "milkshaking,'' in which a trainer gives a horse a cocktail of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes, theoretically to enhance performance. Three times O'Neill was accused of milkshaking horses, through post-race testing that showed increased levels of total carbon dioxide (TCO2), including a horse named Stephen's Got Hope in the 2010 Illinois Derby, a prep for the Kentucky Derby.
O'Neill paid a $1,000 fine and served a 15-day suspension from the Illinois incident. Later in 2010, another of his horses, Argenta, was found to have elevated TCO2 levels after a race at Del Mar, north of San Diego. O'Neill is still litigating that finding; his last hearing was in October, and he faces a 180-day suspension if found guilty. Later in that summer of 2010, a cheap five-year old mare, Burna Dette, running in O'Neill's care, broke down while running for $2,000 claiming tag at Los Alamitos in Southern California, prompting speculation that the horse had been unfit to run.
This accumulation of incidents had justifiably damaged O'Neill's reputation. "I lost some owners,'' said O'Neill. "I probably should have lost more. And mentally it was very tough. A lot of kicks in the gut.'' He would spend hours online, reading everything that written about him, whether in mainstream media or in social media.
''I took things personally,'' said O'Neill. "Probably too much so. But I have confidence in the way we do things in this barn. And I have never milkshaked a horse. Never.'' (This is a denial that O'Neill would repeat in the week after winning the Derby).
Now he has won the biggest horse race in America. I'll Have Another ran a thoroughly professional race in Louisville, and got a perfect trip under Cinderella jockey Mario Gutierrez, who five months ago was riding in the minor leagues at Hastings Park in Vancouver. After Bodemeister rocked through lightning fast fractions and held the lead until the final 100 yards of the race, I'll Have Another wore him down and won by a solid 1½ lengths.
But the Derby trainer's burden has fallen hard on O'Neill. In the week after the Derby, numerous media outlets have reported on the milkshaking issues. And on Friday,
On Friday afternoon O'Neill was in a hotel room in Baltimore, where he had been for several days, supervising I'll Have Another's training for the Preakness. "I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been a troubling and upsetting week,'' said O'Neill. "I wish the focus could be on the present. I wish we could be talking about how brilliant the horse has been, what a great race he ran in the Derby, and how we're trying to win the Triple Crown.''
It won't happen that way. Four years ago Rick Dutrow trained Big Brown to the brink of the Triple Crown (before failing miserably in the Belmont Stakes), but the story was dominated as much by Dutrow's long history of violations (more than 50, plus drug charges against him) as by Big Brown's gifts (which were probably steroid-fueled; anabolic steroids are now banned). Dutrow is currently under a 10-year suspension but still training horses while appealing the ruling.
Yet Dutrow was irascible and offputting. O'Neill might get a smoother ride because he's friendly and welcoming by nature.
But the last week's scrutiny has already left him examining his career, which began in 1991. "When you're a young trainer, it's a privilege to get [barn] stalls at these great tracks,'' says O'Neill. "And you're working hand in hand with the racing office, to help them fill races. You might send a horse over there to race when he's not sound or not doing well. I'm not proud of that.
"And then you start doing well,'' O'Neill said, "and you start expanding. All of sudden I had a string of horses in Delaware, a string in California. You're running everywhere and when you have so many horses running, you get tested a lot. You can get false positives. And then the spotlight is on you.''
O'Neill says he has pulled back his racing operation in recent years, with roughly 80 horses in training, down from more than 100 in the mid-2000s. "I know I'm a damn good horseman,'' he says. "I know I care about my horses. And everything that's happened has made me better as a person and a trainer.''
Now he watches I'll Have Another every morning, and sees that once-in-lifetime horse that every trainer craves when he arrives at work in the darkness. "Strong gallops every day,'' says O'Neill. "He couldn't be doing better.'' Bodemeister is expected back for the Preakness and so is Creative Cause, another solid California-based horse who finished fifth in the Derby. "Good horses,'' says O'Neill. "I wouldn't trade places with any of them.''
That means at least another week of getting not just the glory, but also the heat.