Kentucky Derby

Past violations cloud the otherwise sunny narrative of trainer Doug O'Neill

Mark Verge has told the story so often that, three decades after the fact, he can recall the specifics of the afternoon as if they transpired days ago.

March 22, 1981, was the first time Verge and his grade school buddy Doug O'Neill set foot in Santa Anita Park. Pre-teens at the time, the future chief executive of that track and the eventual Kentucky Derby-winning trainer were escorted by their basketball coach, Michael Amodei, and they laid down their inaugural bet on the day's ninth race, a 61/2-furlong claiming contest on the dirt.

"Doug had a $5 exacta box on Crimson Commander to Joe Blot," Verge said, chuckling. "It hit, ... and we both got $60 each and we were going nuts. That was the first time we walked in this racetrack.

"I said a few years ago to his mom, 'You know, without racing, Doug and I would probably be working at Starbucks,' and she said, 'Starbucks wouldn't have taken you two bums.' That's how we grew up, was going to the track on the bus."

That O'Neill's first dabble in Thoroughbred racing yielded instant success was the kind of foreshadowing that even Hollywood writers would laugh off as too cliché.

But in the 31 years since, O'Neill's inherent knack for the sport as a trainer has become as black and white as the first ticket he cashed — especially after I'll Have Another won the 138th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5.

In racing, however, there exists a little something called take-out, a percentage of the total pool taken by the track before any payoffs are made.

As O'Neill, 43, savors his first classic win and prepares his horse for the second leg of the Triple Crown in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, he has a personal take-out, giving up a little of his joy to address the reasons why he has become one of the sport's most polarizing trainers.

Two points about O'Neill are inarguable. One is how open and likable he is. The other is that he has built one of racing's more successful operations despite having no experience growing up.

Since taking out his trainer's license in the late 1980s after cutting his teeth under astute former trainer Jude Feld, O'Neill has saddled more than 1,600 winners that have won 77 graded stakes races and earned more than $78.2 million to date.

I'll Have Another put him in the mainstream discussion, but O'Neill's list of top runners includes multiple Grade I winner and current stable pony Lava Man, the venerable gelding who O'Neill claimed for $50,000 in 2004 and who went on to earn more than $5.2 million, and champions Stevie Wonderboy, Thor's Echo and Maryfield.

O'Neill has earned nearly 30 training titles on the California circuit, the product of a program that competes on all levels. He said it's the result of years of turning himself into a virtual sponge.

"I got involved (in racing) right out of high school at age 18, and Jude was kind enough to give me my first job without any horseman skills," O'Neill said. "I groomed for a couple years, then I went to work for Hector Palma, worked for Dick Mandella for a short period of time and then worked with Doug Peterson as his assistant.

"I've been so blessed to train in Southern California, where you've got the (Bob) Bafferts and, back in the day, the (Charlie) Whittinghams and the (Bobby) Frankels. Just shutting up and keeping your eyes and ears open, you really learned a lot watching those guys. I have just picked up a little bit from a lot of people and tried to make my own little thing, but I'm still learning every day and trying to get better."

The story of a guy from a middle-class background becoming a self-made power player in an unforgiving industry should be the kind of tale that racing latches onto. Add that the gregarious O'Neill greets reporters and track valets alike as warmly as if they were longtime friends, toss in his support of racehorse retirement programs and children's charities, and one would seemingly have the ideal spokesman for the positives of a maligned sport.

"He's the kind of guy where even when the hotwalker comes over, he thanks him for walking his horse, because if it wasn't for everybody, we couldn't win the Kentucky Derby," said Leandro Mora, O'Neill's assistant for more than 10 years. "And if anyone wants to come around and see the barn or see the horses, they are more than welcome."

A quick check of various message boards in the wake of I'll Have Another's Derby triumph, however, revealed a host of skeptics questioning whether O'Neill holding the gold trophy wasn't yet another black eye for the game.

O'Neill is facing a possible 180-day suspension from the California Horse Racing Board after one of his horses, Argenta — who was co-owned by Verge — was found to have elevated levels of total carbon dioxide while finishing eighth in the sixth race at Del Mar on Aug. 25, 2010.

O'Neill has had three total carbon dioxide violations in California and four overall in his career, leading to allegations of the illegal practice of administering pre-race "milkshakes," a mixture of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes designed to reduce fatigue and enhance performance.

O'Neill paid fines or served suspensions for his three previous TCO2 violations, but he has insisted that he has never milkshaked a horse. He even sued the California Horse Racing Board in federal court last year, saying the board's regulations are not based on current scientific information.

A hearing for O'Neill's most recent alleged violation was held, but officials with the board said a decision could be weeks or months away.

"I know I've spent a lot of money in legal fees to fight it," O'Neill said of the most recent alleged violation. "I know stuff's been written that I'm going to get suspended before the end of the Triple Crown, and there's zero chance of that happening. But I think everything's going to be fine in the end."

Said Verge, who was named Santa Anita's CEO in March, "I think there are definite factions who did not like certain guys and were convinced people were cheating."

Some O'Neill supporters claim that he has been the target of jealous competitors, but Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California racing board, said the facts speak for themselves.

"The samples go into the laboratory as coded numbers; they are reported out as coded numbers," Arthur said. "There is no way anyone could do a witch hunt. That is nonsense. All the TCO2 violations are prosecuted, and in the complaint, this horse had a very high TCO2, and we pursued him like we would anyone else.

"Since the summer of 2006, we have had just four violations, and that's out of probably about 130,000 tests. Those have been Jeff Mullins, Mike Mitchell and Doug O'Neill twice."

On top of his violations, O'Neill had to defend himself in August 2010 for dropping the 5-year-old mare Burna Dette into a $2,000 claiming race at Los Alamitos weeks after previously running for $16,000. Burna Dette, who was checked and cleared to run by two veterinarians, broke down and had to be euthanized.

"People complain that they're running horses for too high (of purses) to kill them and now they're saying he's running them too low. Which is it?," Verge said. "Doug was trying to find the spot for the horse at a level she was capable of."

Like the sport he fell in love with, O'Neill is complicated and divisive, yet engaging and passionate — all which might make him the perfect person right now to be the face of Thoroughbred racing.

"We should have had the respect a long time ago. We won a race in Japan, where the rules are hay and water. We won a race in Dubai," Mora said. "But a lot of people are still negative because they still don't believe that a man who was not a horseman can become a real horseman. But I know what I see."