ELMONT, New York -- Early last Wednesday afternoon, Doug O'Neill was on his cellphone conducting a telephone interview. Since O'Neill trains I'll Have Another, who next Saturday will try to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, O'Neill has been doing a lot of this for the past month. At shortly after 1 p.m., he got a call waiting notification from his publicist, Kelly Wietsma. O'Neill paused his interview and went to Wietsma, who said, "We have to talk.''
With those four words, what had already promised to be one of the most unusual Belmont Stakes weeks in modern racing history became demonstrably stranger. The substance of Wietsma's call to O'Neill was that the New York State Racing and Wagering Board had announced -- taking this straight from the bold-faced headline on its press release -- "strict protocols for horses and participants taking part in June 9 Belmont Stakes.'' Most notably, horses will be placed in a secure barn no later than Wednesday, June 6, and kept there under tight security until being led to the track for the Belmont.
There is a reliable vibe to a Triple Crown attempt. It begins in earnest at the Kentucky Derby, when a massive field of 20 thoroughbreds, some of whom do not belong in the race but have enough winnings and starstruck ownership, produces one winner who then becomes that year's Great Hope. At the Preakness in Baltimore, the attention that was spread out among 20 horses in Louisville becomes focused almost entirely on one horse. And -- this is especially important this year -- his connections. If the Derby winner takes down the Preakness and carries a live Triple Crown bid to New York, the attention increases significantly from there. It is rather like when Tiger Woods was at his peak or when Usain Bolt participates in a track meet: There are other competitors involved, but it's all about one person (or horse).
This has happened 11 times since a horse last won the Triple Crown, Affirmed in 1978. And, of course, on all 11 occasions the Derby/Preakness winning horse has failed in the Belmont, extending a drought that, while not quite as long as the Mets' no-no-hitter streak, had gone from the era of three-channel television to the age of Twitter. Hence, when the Derby/Preakness winner reached Belmont, there is an almost religious fervor that surrounds the race. Among hardcore racing fans who believe (wrongly) that a Triple Crown will restore racing to its past glory. Among workaday sports fans (and media) who revel (rightly) in witnessing history. It is a three-week climb that peaks late on Belmont Saturday, and then reliably bottoms out with failure.
But it's generally very one-dimensional. Coverage focuses on the people around the horse. Or on race strategy. Or on autopsying past Triple Crown successes (with people like Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte, Seattle Slew trainer Billy Turner or Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen). All very logical and predictable. It's always been a way to fill the three-week vacuum between the Preakness and the Belmont.
This year it's very different. And the New York State Racing and Wagering Board's flashy security mandate underscores that difference. This year there are two angles on the Belmont Stakes: 1) The obvious: I'll Have Another's run at history. 2) O'Neill as the personification of racing's ills.
O'Neill's rap sheet has been widely reported on, here and elsewhere. He has been hit with fines or suspensions for drug and medication violations 14 times in 14 years in four different states. According to a New York Times study, his horses break down at more than the twice the average rate. Five days after the Preakness, he was suspended 45 days by the California Horse Racing Board because in 2010 one of his horses tested with an excessive amount of total carbon dioxide (TCO2), which can be an indication that the trainer had treated the horse with substances to help diminish the buildup of lactic acid, thus reducing fatigue.
This was O'Neill's fourth TCO2 overage (three in California, one in Illinois, for which he was suspended 15 days, also in 2010). O'Neill's attorneys successfully argued that O'Neill did not "milkshake'' (administer a cocktail of substances through the horse's nostrils) his horse in the most recent instance, but the CHRB report, which you can read here, is damning in its certainty that some sort of manipulation took place.
O'Neill is not the first damaged trainer to reach the Belmont in pursuit of a Triple Crown. Four years ago Rick Dutrow brought Big Brown to New York after having won the Derby and Preakness far more convincingly than I'll Have Another. At that time, Dutrow possessed a much more extensive list of violations than O'Neill. And it was part of the story line. But that story line is always dictated by not just the subject, but also by the time and place. In 2012, there is a much greater sense of impending doom around racing than there was in 2008. Hence, O'Neill is getting more heat than Dutrow.
And say this for O'Neill: He has handled the ongoing inquisition with dignity and humor, which fits with his personality. He's a decent man who devotes significant time to charity work, especially with children. None of this has anything to do with how he treats his horses, but it does affect public perception. (On camera, Dutrow looked like he could have been guilty of snatching the Lindbergh baby). The constant scrutiny -- all of it deserved -- has left him a little battered.
On Thursday, he stood in the shedrow at Barn 9 on the Belmont backstretch. It's trainer Mark Hennig's barn, and Hennig has given O'Neill stalls through the Belmont. O'Neill was outside I'll Have Another's stall, next door to the former great handicap horse, Lava Man. "It's really all about the horse, but now it's become like it's more about me,'' he said. And then he paused and asked a question of his own: "When did it became all about the people around the horse, instead of the horse? Because none of us are here without the horse.''
This brings us to the state racing and wagering board's security barn decision. In general terms it's impossible to dispute the rationale: Ensure a clean race in what will be the most-watched horse race in America in 2012. Even O'Neill said, "I'm OK with it. They want the fans to know that they're a clean race.''
There are two problems. One is micro: Why wait until 11 days after the Preakness to unveil the new security plans? On the day the plans were announced, trainer Michael Matz of Barbaro fame, who will saddle Union Rags in the Belmont, said, "Do they make this stuff up as they go along?'' O'Neill echoed that sentiment on Thursday. "They should have had this figured out a week ago,'' he said.
Horses fall into habits. O'Neill would like to have brought I'll Have Another into one stall at Belmont, and kept him there, rather than moving. As it stands, he will move the horse on Monday, two days before he's required to do so. "I would like to have some control over whether the stall is disinfected properly, cleaned properly,'' says O'Neill. "When we came to Mark (Hennig's) barn, everything was perfect.'' Of course, every Belmont horse will face the same problems.
The second issue is larger. Racing has broad problems that require long-term solutions. The Belmont stakes barn is not a long-term solution (unless the racing and wagering and board announces similar plans for every race in the future; not likely, since they aren't even using the stakes barn for any other races on Belmont Day). It's a showy play in front of a big audience. Full surveillance on horses is a potentially -- albeit costly -- useful means to ensure a reduction in race-day doping and safer racing.
Make no mistake. This is the Doug O'Neill Rule. And he knows it. Or suspects it. "My name was on the official press release, wasn't it?'' O'Neill asked me Thursday. It wasn't. But the fact that O'Neill thought it was is revealing. But there has been no overt suggestion by anyone that I'll Have Another has been given any illegal medication of any kind. Or any other horse in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.
Suppose the Doug O'Neill Rule hadn't been enacted. What would have been the takeaway from Belmont Day? Big live crowd, huge television audience and perhaps a Triple Crown win that gives multiple generations the experience of seeing one of the most unique occurrences in all of sport. Would a vast part of the public have come away mumbling that I'll Have Another was a drug horse? I don't think so. Maybe. But I don't think so.
And then first thing Monday morning, the racing and wagering board, and the disparate racing boards scattered around the country, could get to the business of cleaning up and trying to save their sport. A stakes barn at the Belmont won't do that. It will muddy up what could be a historic day, a superficial stroke 100 miles wide and one inch deep.