BALTIMORE — A group of local elementary school girls stopped by the Stakes Barn at Pimlico on Friday morning. They wore blue-and-white uniforms and bright smiles.
Doug O'Neill was hurrying to an ESPN interview when the group's leader caught the trainer's attention. O'Neill didn't hesitate. He sprinted to greet them.
Soon the affable trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner had trained the visitors.
"On the count of three, say, 'I'll Have Another,'" commanded O'Neill. "One, two, three."
"I'll Have Another," they shouted in unison.
"Who's going to win the Preakness?" a bystander asked.
"I'll Have Another," they shouted again.
Saturday, I'll Have Another will try to become the first Derby winner since Big Brown in 2008 to win the Preakness. It has been 34 years since a horse won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the same year.
Thus racing's annual question: How good would a Triple Crown winner be for the sport?
Answer: You know what would be good for racing?
Roger Goodell would be good for racing.
Goodell is the NFL commissioner. He is known for swift punishments and little latitude. The New Orleans Saints are currently reeling from the "Bounty-gate" suspensions doled out by the commissioner. He is the man in charge.
Contrast that to racing's lack of leadership.
The man of the moment is the 43-year-old O'Neill, the California-based conditioner who deftly trained the Derby winner. O'Neill is just what racing needs — open, accessible, funny, charming.
He is also what racing does not need, a trainer with a history. Four times now his horses have tested positive for alleged "milkshake" incidents, a chemical concoction that helps horses fight fatigue.
Despite insisting innocence, O'Neill has paid fines and served suspensions. He could still serve a suspension for the fourth charge, which he is fighting.
Only here's the thing: That alleged incident happened two years ago.
"I didn't even know what was going on," Bob Baffert, trainer of Derby runner-up Bodemeister, said Friday. "You don't hear about it too much in California."
It is the latest example of a sport crippled by the lack of a central governing body. A Goodell would have dealt with the O'Neill issue long ago, one way or the other. Now it's an open wound on which the public can seize.
"What happens is once you win the Kentucky Derby you're going to be really scrutinized," said Baffert, who has won the Derby three times, the Preakness five. "It's unfortunate that they're talking about stuff like that. There's a lot of space to fill and everybody jumps on the same story."
There is another elephant in the Preakness barn. Among the 11 starters is Zetterholm, trained by Richard Dutrow Jr., who trained Big Brown.
It's also the Dutrow who was given a 10-year training ban in New York and denied a license in Kentucky for repeated infractions.
Dutrow received a judicial stay, however, and can train while appealing his case. In fact, because racing is governed by states, Maryland is not required to follow the New York ruling.
Possible Sunday headline: "Trainer Given 10-year Ban for Cheating Wins Second Leg of Triple Crown."
One reason the public believes Thoroughbred racing is all about the chemical horse is because that's what racing allows the public to see.
Older than the Triple Crown question is the one asking when racing will get on the same page and take decisive action to clean up the sport.
Meanwhile, Doug O'Neill is left hanging. He is to blame for that, no doubt, but the sport itself is hardly blameless. It has again put itself in an embarrassing position.
"I'm sure Doug is not proud of what's happened," Baffert said, "but they should be talking about the horse."
Without a Roger Goodell, racing has too many other things to talk about.