ELMONT, N.Y. - It is his moment as much as his horse’s, and he knows it. He also knows that after Saturday, the buzz around him will either fade to background music or grow even louder, depending on whether I’ll Have Another makes history by completing the Triple Crown in the 144th Belmont Stakes.
Is trainer Doug O’Neill someone who takes advantage of the rules, just plain breaks the rules or is he the honest, rule-abiding horseman he says he is?
The answer could be any of the above. What is different now is that the national sports spotlight is on him and the way he conducts his business. Security personnel, track officials, and media have been following him around the massive Belmont grounds all week.
The California-based trainer worked his way from obscure to notorious in a whirlwind span that began in February with an unexpected win by I’ll Have Another in the Grade II Robert Lewis at Santa Anita as a 43-1 shot. He won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby two months later, then went off the charts when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Each win brought more scrutiny, and O’Neill was revealed as an affable, roguish figure who has been charged with 25 violations since 2005. Included in the violations were four cases in which horses he trained were found to have excessive levels of carbon dioxide in their system, which can be the result of “a milkshake’’ - a mixture of baking soda, sugar, and water designed to reduce the buildup of lactic acid, which causes fatigue.
O’Neill has maintained his innocence, but the California Horse Racing Board thought otherwise and issued a $15,000 fine and a 45-day suspension that will take effect July 1 unless O’Neill appeals, which is almost a guarantee.
Needless to say, the charges and the aura around O’Neill have been a major part of the tale of I’ll Have Another.
On the surface, at least, O’Neill is enjoying most of it, which is not unexpected for someone who began as an aggressive trainer in California looking for a quick fix. He would claim and train relatively inexpensive horses, hoping they succeeded enough not only to make money but enhance O’Neill’s reputation.
In the always murky world of horse racing, many gray areas remain, and O’Neill must deal with them now that he is at the center of what could be horse racing’s biggest day in 34 years.
It is the prime reason Belmont officials decided to stable all 12 entrants in a secure barn this week, a move that brought anger and dismay from most trainers but a shrug of inevitability from O’Neill, who knows it was done because of his background.
O’Neill’s documented violations included misdeeds such as not reporting that a horse was gelded, submitting a false scratch card, and entering an ineligible horse - stuff that seems more sloppy than diabolical.
Although his climb to the national spotlight appears rapid, he won 28 training titles at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and Fairplex, where the California thoroughbred season unfolds each year.
“This is the big stage,’’ he said Thursday. “This is the big stage, the big enchilada. So this is what we are dreaming about.’’
But the cloud hovering over O’Neill has been a disquieting factor.
In an article in The Atlantic, Penny Chenery, the former owner of Secretariat, leveled sharp criticism at O’Neill and I’ll Have Another’s owner, J. Paul Reddam.
“I think it’s regrettable,’’ said the 90-year old Chenery. “And it isn’t the horse’s fault, and this is probably a very good horse. I don’t know Mr. Reddam personally but I think he should be embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record.’’
“There’s too much negative things involving the trainer,’’ said trainer Bob Baffert, who hopes his horse, Paynter, will spoil O’Neill’s day. “It’s about the horse.’’
O’Neill knows he has a good horse - perhaps a great one that can make his life better.
“Other than the birth of my two kids, I don’t know how it could get much better,’’ he said. “But it would be that kind of like ‘wowing’ moment. Hopefully it happens and I get a chance to experience that and it would be awesome.’’