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 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.