A year before, in 2010, O’Neill was punished for administering an illegal performance-enhancing concoction to a horse he ran in the prestigious Illinois Derby— the third time he had been accused of giving a horse what is known as a milkshake. Four months later, he was accused again of giving a milkshake to a horse in California.
Over 14 years and in four different states, O’Neill received more than a dozen violations for giving his horses improper drugs. O’Neill’s horses also have had a tendency to break down. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the horses he trains break down or show signs of injury at more than twice the rate of the national average.
But none of it — the drug charges or the rate of damaged horses under his care — has much impeded O’Neill’s rise in the ranks of racing, and so there he was last Saturday, saddling I’ll Have Another, the surprising 3-year-old who won the 138th Kentucky Derby.
O’Neill’s Derby victory places him — and his troubled record — center stage at a time when thoroughbred racing is facing perhaps its greatest ethical reckoning. There is legislation before Congress calling for federal regulation of the sport. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has appointed a task force to investigate a spike in the number of catastrophic breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack, which races thoroughbreds.
Industry groups representing breeders, owners and racetracks are proposing new drug rules and integrity measures to better protect the horses and riders.
“I have been guilty of running horses more often than I should,” O’Neill said this week. “Through some terrible moments in my career, I’ve learned to be more patient and more cautious.”
O’Neill, who has fought some of the charges brought against him over the years, continues to insist he has never given a horse a milkshake — a mix of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes delivered through a tube down a horse’s nose to combat fatigue.
The racing industry has come to realize that lax regulation and the absence of meaningful punishment have fostered a culture where top trainers with multiple drug violations are more the rule than the exception. Of the top 20 trainers in the United States — measured by purses won in 2011 — only two, Christophe Clement and Graham Motion, were never cited for a medication violation, according to the Racing Commission International database.
In March, the Jockey Club, one of the sport’s most influential groups, proposed a set of stricter racing medication rules, and it has encouraged racing jurisdictions throughout the country to implement them. On Thursday, the Jockey Club, along with the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, started an advocacy Web site, Cleanhorseracing.org, dedicated to the reform of medication rules.
“Thoroughbred racing cannot tolerate individuals who repeatedly violate its drug rules,” said James L. Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club. “Under this structure, there would be a cumulative penalty system and stronger penalties. Fines, disqualifications, loss of purse earnings and even lifetime suspensions would be imposed on habitual violators.”
Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, commended O’Neill’s skills as a horseman as well as his passion, which has made him among the most enthusiastic ambassadors of the sport.
However, Waldrop said in a statement, O’Neill’s “record of repeated violations” cannot be “ignored or excused.”
In recent years, the issue of whether trainers continued to break the rules in part because the penalties were so minor was exemplified by the case of Richard Dutrow Jr. For years, Dutrow trained horses at tracks across the country despite amassing dozens of drug violations. He paid fines, litigated cases for years and in 2008 found himself the trainer of Big Brown, the winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Last October, New York authorities, citing 70 violations in 15 states, revoked Dutrow’s license, barring him from state racetracks for 10 years. But Dutrow appealed the ruling and continues to race horses effectively enough to be the nation’s 11th-ranked trainer with more than $2.2 million in earnings for 2012.
O’Neill, 43, is a self-taught horseman who is popular among thoroughbred owners in California, where his training operation is based. He went to the track after finishing high school in Santa Monica with little experience with horses beyond being a fan. “He didn’t know how to train any horses,” said his longtime friend Mark Verge, now a top executive at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. “But he had a passion for the game, and he learned. He was upbeat and nice to everyone.”
Verge was a co-owner of Stephen’s Got Hope, a horse trained by O’Neill that tested positive for having received a milkshake in the Illinois Derby two years ago. He was also co-owner of another O’Neill-trained horse, Argenta, which, California regulators said, tested positive for a milkshake in 2010 after racing at Del Mar.
O’Neill paid a $1,000 fine and served a 15-day suspension for the Illinois violation. He has contested the results of the violation for Argenta, arguing that environmental factors may have caused a false positive. The case should be heard within two months, and O’Neill, if found in violation, could be suspended up to 180 days. Although that would apply only to racing in California, other jurisdictions have the choice to uphold it.
Verge said O’Neill had been the victim of his success and might have been sabotaged. “People hate his guts because he wins,” Verge said.
It was O’Neill’s gregarious nature, however, that won over the owner of I’ll Have Another, Paul Reddam, who first met O’Neill in 2004 when he bought a small piece of an inexpensive horse.
“He called me every day with updates,” said Reddam, who has horses with several trainers here and in England.
“I had a lot more horses with other guys, but I didn’t hear from them as much. Doug was an effective politician, and he figured that as the relationship grew I might give him more horses. He was right.”
Reddam, who owns the California lender CashCall, buys top-level horses and points them to stakes races, but he said that most of O’Neill’s more than 75 horses remain in the everyday tier of the sport. He said none of his horses were involved in O’Neill’s drug violations. He said that O’Neill had insisted to him that he does not cheat with his horses, and that he takes the trainer at his word.
“Doug races a lot of horses, and I think the numbers catch up to him,” Reddam said. “I don’t think illegal drugs are rampant in his barn. Horse trainers, like people in all sports, look for whatever edge they can to win. Everyone thinks the other guy is doing something.”
Nationally, thoroughbred horses break down or show signs of injury at a rate of 5.1 per thousand starts, according to The Times’s analysis of more than 150,000 races over the past three years. In more than 2,300 starts, horses trained by O’Neill show a breakdown or injury frequency more than double that rate, at 12.0 per thousand starts.
“It’s a horrible statistic to be associated with,” O’Neill said.
In comparison, horses in the care of Motion — one of the trainers without a single drug violation and who will race Went the Day Well in the Preakness Stakes next Saturday — have started nearly 1,900 races and broken down or showed signs of injury in just 0.5 per thousand starts.
Dr. Mary Scollay, chief veterinarian for the Kentucky Racing Commission, said she spent 20 years on the racetrack dealing with a variety of trainers, including one that never had a single horse taken from the track because of injury or breakdown.
“How do you explain that, when other trainers — dealing with the same genetic pool of horses, racing over the same surfaces, and using the same vets — are having a substantially greater incidence of injuries?” she said. “That guy knew his horses better than anybody. They were professional athletes and he asked a lot of them, but he knew when he was asking too much.”
In 2010, O’Neill’s handling of a horse named Burna Dette was called into question by the California Horse Racing Board after he entered the filly in a bottom-level race at Los Alamitos racetrack. She broke down and had to be euthanized. In the span of two months, O’Neill had bought Burna Dette for $25,000, raced her at Del Mar, where she was well beaten, but then went ahead and two weeks later ran her in a race where she could have been bought for $2,000.
The investigation centered on whether O’Neill knew the horse was hurt and was trying to get rid of it. The board eventually determined it had “insufficient evidence to pursue any action” against O’Neill or his owners.
“It was a horrific event and hearing her name still brings chills to me,” O’Neill said. “I was trying to get her a win and work her back up the ladder.”
O’Neill, in his interview this week with The Times, said he would prefer to be speaking about the prospects of I’ll Have Another’s winning the 137th Preakness Stakes and perhaps then heading to New York for the Belmont Stakes and an opportunity to become the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
But he said he also understood how, with his win in the Derby, his disciplinary record had fed the debate for a sport at a crossroads. O’Neill said he was trying to own up to his mistakes while fighting the allegations that he said were not true.
In the past, he said, he had succumbed to the pressure of racetrack officials who, eager to have full fields in their races, persuaded him to run horses that might have needed more rest. On Wednesday, however, he said, by way of example, he turned down the requests of officials at his home track of Hollywood Park to enter more than half a dozen horses for this Saturday’s races.
“In the past, I may have led a few over there that I knew didn’t have a chance to win to help them fill the race and me to maintain my stalls,” he said. “Last few years, I’ve been taking the approach of running less often. My horses are well taken care of, and I love them. And I love this sport.”
Horse Racing: America’s Most Dangerous Game?
In 2008, a horse named Eight Belles collapsed with two broken ankles just after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. She was euthanized directly on the track. After her death, the thoroughbred industry organized safety and drug testing committees to make the sport safer.But industry practices continue to put both horses and riders in harm’s way. On average, 24 horses a week die at racetracks in the United States. Many horses that break down run with injuries masked by injected painkillers.
New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and Joe Drape have conducted an in-depth, months long investigation looking at the American racing industry, which, they write, is “still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.”
They report that since 2009, more than 6,600 horses have broken down or showed signs of injury. An additional 3,800 horses have tested positive for illegal drugs. That figure underestimates the problem because few horses are tested for substances. At least 3,600 horses have died either racing or training at state-regulated tracks.
“When you have a relatively cheap horse and a huge prize, the risk and reward gets out of balance.” – Walt Bogdanich
To obtain these figures, Bogdanich and Drape purchased data from 150,000 races, then searched for keywords indicating that horses had been injured.
“We spent months collecting these data, double-checking it, weeding out possibly duplicates,” Bogdanich tells Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies. “It was an extraordinarily difficult process, but we thought it was worth it. And, indeed, it revealed certain truths about racing that up until that point had not been publicly known.”
Their key findings included learning that quarter horses that race shorter distances on tracks broke down, on average, about 29 percent more than racing thoroughbreds. Cheaper horses also broke down more often than more expensive ones.
“We then started to look at the relationship between the purse money and the values of the horse,” says Bogdanich. “Basically, when you have a relatively cheap horse and a huge prize, the risk and reward gets out of balance. And if there’s little risk and a huge reward, owners are going to take chances that they otherwise wouldn’t do and end up putting rider and animal at risk.”
Trainers who illegally inject injured horses full of painkillers so they can race are rarely fined or suspended. The pain medications can mask existing injuries, so the horses pass their pre-race inspection and run faster than they otherwise would. Other horses are injected with performance enhancing substances — ranging from cobra venom to blood doping agents — that cannot be detected by labs.
“There’s a lot of these guys in the back stretch who, if somebody says this will make your horse run faster, they’ll give it a shot,” says Bogdanich.
Drape adds: “There’s a fear among trainers that if their competitors are using something that may or may not work, [they then think] ‘Well, I’m going to be at a disadvantage, so I’m going to use it, too.’ And I think that’s driving a good part of the use of these improper drugs.”
Bogdanich and Drape also looked into how the addition of casino gambling at many tracks has made racing an even more dangerous sport. The addition of slots has meant that racetracks have started to increase their purse sizes, which has encouraged trainers to race horses that would otherwise be unfit.
“The horsemen are tempted to just act badly, to not take into consideration the health of their horse,” says Bogdanich. “You can either turn out a horse for two weeks and let him heal on his own, or you can give him a few shots and run him back in seven days and maybe hit the board in third place and get enough money to pay for three more months in training. So those were the sort of choices that were offered by the expanded casino purses.”
Cheaper horses were often the most vulnerable, Drape says, particularly when they were put in races for increasingly larger pots of money.
“When you have less expensive horses, it [still] costs money to feed them, to care for them, to shelter them,” he says. “And there are unfortunately, we are told, some owners who say, ‘Well, why do I want to spend all this money on a cheap horse? Let’s throw him out there. He may win. He may not. And if he doesn’t win and he breaks down, then it’s not my problem anymore.’ “