It was an achievement O’Neill had dreamed of since the first time his parents took him to Santa Anita Park, where as a 10-year-old he was awestruck by the crowds, the majesty of the horses and the athleticism of the jockeys. He found his calling.
“I knew it was going to be [horse racing], though I didn’t know exactly to what extent or what I would be doing,” O’Neill said. “But I was on a mission from God to figure out a way to pay the bills doing something related to horse racing.”
The one-time hot-walker and groom seeks the second jewel of the Triple Crown Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, where I’ll Have Another will break from post 9 in a field of 11 horses, Bodemeister among them.
The forecast for the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes calls for clear, sunny skies. But there’s a cloud hanging over O’Neill that could result in a 180-day suspension and $15,000 fine as a result of a failed test for elevated levels of carbon dioxide in one of his horses.
It was O’Neill’s fourth such failed test since 2006, and a ruling could come next week, when the California Horse Racing Board meets behind closed doors (though no penalty would take effect until after June’s Belmont Stakes).
It’s difficult to imagine a more dissonant note — the apparent pattern of rules-breaking clashing sharply with O’Neill’s easy warmth and charisma.
O’Neill has professed his innocence and filed suit over the most recent failed test, which suggests the banned practice known as “milkshaking,” in which a mixture of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes are pumped into a horse’s nostrils to delay the sensation of fatigue and, in turn, boost performance down the stretch.
Asked about the potential sanction heading into the Preakness, O’Neill said he would address it more fully after the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes.
“I owe it to the owners and to the fans and to the horse just to focus in on I’ll Have Another,” O’Neill said following a recent morning workout at Pimlico.
“Milkshaking” — or bicarbonate loading, in more sophisticated terms — gives racehorses an extra buffer against the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, which causes the sensation of fatigue, according to Rick M. Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board.
It poses little, if any, danger to the horse, Arthur added — assuming the mixture doesn’t seep into a horse’s lungs or isn’t administered in exceedingly high dosages.