O'Neill will face scrutiny at Belmont about drugs
Doug O'Neill has three weeks to prepare I'll Have Another for a final run at the Triple Crown, and the suddenly popular trainer likely will spend some of that time fielding questions about pending penalties tied to allegations of giving his horses improper drugs.
The topic surfaced briefly Saturday evening, while O'Neill was still in a euphoric state over his first Preakness victory.
He brushed off the topic in much the same way I'll Have Another shrugged off his role as underdog to runner-up Bodemeister, blazing past him in the final strikes to win by a neck.
"We play by the rules," O'Neill said. "It's all about the horse. We're going to focus on the horse. I think we've got a horse and a team that, with a little bit of luck, will have an unbelievable time in three weeks."
O'Neill has been accused in California of "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.
"I swear on my kids' eyes I never milkshaked a horse," O'Neill said nine days before the Preakness. "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."
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 - the so-called milkshake - 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.
Any suspension almost certainly wouldn't occur before the Belmont on June 9.
O'Neill acknowledged before the Preakness that the drug charge and the questioning has become a "distraction."
He filed a federal lawsuit against the California Horse Racing Board in March 2011, suggesting the state's drug testing program could be flawed.
Despite the pending penalties, I'll Have Another owner J. Paul Reddam has no reservations about employing O'Neill.
"I thought that Doug did a fantastic job preparing the horse," Reddam said.
Bracing for the added attention in New York for the next race, O'Neill said with a grin:
"There is a good chance I might change my phone number. But it's all about the horse. The horse is way up here. We take care of him. We love him. Any attention on me, I just want to deflect and just focus on the Reddams and their horse and the Belmont."
And, yes, he's looking forward to it all.
"I'm excited," he said. "We work hard and take care of the horses. When injuries come up, we just regroup, take care of them. We just have a really good atmosphere on the barn. That helps us have time to keep everything very loose for me and the horses and the staff."