When he went to Churchill Downs last year, trainer Doug O'Neill said, "I felt like the luckiest guy in the world to be part of the Kentucky Derby." But after he saddled I'll Have Another to win America's famous race, he could scarcely have imagined what the success would be like.
The front page of the New York Times detailed his history of medication infractions, and much of the media cited the reputation that had earned him the sobriquet "Drug" O'Neill. The Humane Society denounced him. The president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association said his record was inexcusable. Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, said the owner of I'll Have Another should be embarrassed to employ such a trainer.
Unfazed, O'Neill is back at Churchill Downs this week with another prime Derby contender, Goldencents, winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Both the trainer and the sport may expect another onslaught of negative publicity because of his presence. Mine may be a lonely voice saying that O'Neill has been maligned.
He rose to prominence in California a decade ago, at a time when "milkshakes" — a baking-soda solution used to enhance horses' performance — were being used illicitly at many tracks. O'Neill claimed the previously undistinguished Lava Man for $50,000 and turned the gelding into one of the country's top stakes horses, winning more than $5 million in purses. It was the kind of miraculous turnaround that makes the racing community believe that a trainer is cheating.
The industry finally adopted a test for milkshaking — it measures the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a horse's system — and while Lava Man never exceeded the legal limit, other O'Neill horses did so on four occasions. O'Neill said, "I am adamant that we don't milkshake, and we haven't milkshaked," but he carried a shady reputation into last year's Triple Crown.
In the spring of 2012, the New York Times was running a series of articles about abuses in horse racing, particularly the high fatality rates at many U.S. tracks and the connection between drugs and those deaths. When O'Neill stepped into the limelight, the Times had a face to put on these issues. Citing his record of record of drug violations and the distressing breakdown rate of his horses, the Times wrote: "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."
When O'Neill was making headlines last spring, I analyzed the records of his horses over the previous five years, and my findings contradicted his reputation. The hallmark of most cheaters is an outlandish win percentage — sometimes as high as 40 percent — after they have acquired horses from other trainers. O'Neill's win rate with his new acquisitions was a modest 18 percent. When they did win, his horses almost never displayed the sudden, implausible improvement that suggests a trainer is using illegal drugs.
Nor were there suspicious-looking performances in the cases when O'Neill was punished for medication violations or CO2 above the limit. The trainer received a 45-day suspension after Argenta showed a CO2 overage in a 2010 race, a penalty that was cited in virtually every article about O'Neill's nefarious record. But Argenta was a hopeless case who went off at 20-to-1 and finished next-to-last, and it seems inconceivable that the trainer would have been using a milkshake to help her win.
O'Neill acknowledged that his critics were right about the high injury record of his horses. "We had a period when we had a rash of injuries and I had to look in the mirror," he said. " I was running horses too often; I was a little sloppy there. I'm learning to run horses less frequently and being more diligent about that."
He was stung by some of the other criticism, particularly the fallout after he scratched I'll Have Another from the Belmont Stakes because of a tendon injury. The Times suggested that O'Neill had campaigned an infirm animal throughout the Triple Crown series and kept him going with the use of "powerful painkillers." He felt this depiction was a reckless distortion of the facts.
But for the most part, the trainer kept his focus on his work, retained his good humor and didn't shy away from the media. (He agreed to be the subject of a report on "60 Minutes Sports," which will air on Showtime at 9 p.m. Wednesday.) O'Neill said he has been buoyed by the continued support of his owners: "They know we love our horses and take great care of them. The people who were with me [before the controversy] are still with me."
Paul Reddam, I'll Have Another's owner, marveled at his trainer's demeanor. "He went to work with a smile every day," Reddam said. "I was amazed with the resilience he showed."
All of the attention to O'Neill's alleged misdeeds obscured the excellence of his work with I'll Have Another. It's tough for even the best trainers to bring a horse through a series of demanding prep races and then get them to reach peak condition on the first Saturday in May, but O'Neill did so. I'll Have Another's Derby was the best performance of his career to that point, and his Preakness was even better.
The ability that O'Neill displayed in 2012 reinforces Goldencents' status as a principal Derby contender. The modestly bred colt has looked like a top prospect since he won his debut at Del Mar by seven lengths. But when he got involved in a suicidal speed duel and faded to finish fourth in the San Felipe Stakes in March, O"Neill admitted, "We thought the horse might have distance limitations."
O'Neill made some changes to Goldencents' training regimen and gave him one more chance in the Santa Anita Derby. After vying for the lead, the colt pulled away in the stretch and won the fastest of all the major Kentucky Derby prep races. If he can duplicate that performance Saturday, he will put O'Neill's name on a short list of trainers who have won America's greatest race back to back, and perhaps earn him some overdue credit for his skill as a horseman.