It’s a good thing I’ll Have Another is such a celebrity. Otherwise that horse would be working right now. The most scrutinized trainer in thoroughbred racing was forced to withdraw the most famous horse in America from the Belmont, when he displayed obvious tenderness and swelling in his front left leg. What compassion. What noble caution, to scratch a sore-legged horse from a mile-and-a-half race.
Doug O’Neill did the right thing by his horse — for once.
This is hardly proof that thoroughbred racing has cured its creeping moral sickness. It only proves that O’Neill knows he can’t take another major public scandal at the moment, and neither can his sport. The real, longer-view truth is that Doug O’Neill hurts horses, and everybody in this beautiful-turned-rotten game knows it, and won’t do anything about it.
We should be grateful that I’ll Have Another won’t be on the track at risk of a public breakdown on Saturday. But somewhere, on another track, in a less publicized race, a sore-legged horse will run. About 800 horses die racing each year, an average of two per day, and another 3,500 or so suffer injuries so bad they can’t hobble to the finish line. That rate is intolerably high — but you know what? It’s nothing compared with O’Neill’s.
On Thursday, the Thoroughbred Times posted an item looking at O’Neill’s safety record. It was the worst in the Belmont Stakes field: 6.1 incidents for every 1,000 starts, “a rate of nearly twice the average of such incidents.” That report followed one by the New York Times last week that found ONeill’s horses were injured at more than twice the national rate.
Throughout the Triple Crown season, O’Neill has been Mister Affable when confronted with his abysmal record. He has been hit with 15 drug violations by racing commissions in four states over the last dozen years, including his recent 45-day suspension handed down in California. Yet he continues to be permitted to saddle mounts, presumably because he is one of the most quotable and profitable figures in the paddock.
He invites people to come to his barn and see how happy and shiny his horses are, how well cared-for and how indulged with carrots and peppermint. Why, it’s like a chapter out of “Black Beauty.” When asked about the topic of breakdowns, he says, sorrowfully and repentantly, how much he loves the horses, and swears that his transgressions are all in the past, the breakdowns were just a matter of inexperience.
But O’Neill is not some neophyte. He has been a major figure in California racing since 2000, with the largest stable in the southern half of the state. The worst incidents of his career didn’t come a decade ago. They came in 2009 and 2010. And when you hear the names of the horses and the details, the statistics come to life.
In 2009 O’Neill’s gelding Mi Rey broke down in a $10,000 claimer on opening day at Del Mar. That same year, O’Neill raced Lava Man, I’ll Have Another’s stable pony, even though he had undergone surgery for chips in his ankles. The horse finished dead last in San Gabriel, with blood on his hind feet.
Those events were just a prelude for 2010, when he was accused of using claiming races to dump injured horses. He picked up a 5-year-old gelding named Big Wig, and just eight days after the horse seemed to pull up badly, ran him in a claimer for $40,000. The horse finished last — and limping.
But it was O’Neill’s work with a horse named Burna Dette that sealed his reputation with fellow trainers in California. She was obviously deteriorating when she came into O’Neill’s hands. He ran her in the opening day of Del Mar for just $16,000 and she was a disappointing sixth. Just 16 days later, he stuck her in a low-rent $2,000 claimer at Los Alamitos. She collapsed on the far turn. The most hard-bitten hands were universally disgusted. Another trainer, Kristin Mulhall, suggested on the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club racing forum that O’Neill should have his license jerked and wrote, “We are here to take care of the horses, not butcher them.”
If thoroughbred racing were a sport with any kind of governance, O’Neill wouldn’t be allowed to rake hay much less run an animal in one of the classics. But there are 38 racing organizations around the country, and none is distinguishing itself. The thoroughbred fatality rate has increased somewhere between 30 and 40 percent over the last 20 years, Rick Arthur, medical director of the California Racing Board, told Slate.com.
At Penn National, nine horses belonging to a single owner died. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has seized control of the scandal-riddled New York Racing Association and ordered a task force investigation into catastrophic breakdowns at Aqueduct, where 16 horses died in 14 weeks. Louisiana has its problems, and so does New Mexico, where the death rate is the highest.
It’s relieving that I’ll Have Another’s connections did the right thing in this instance. But that was just one horse, on one day. Thoroughbred racing is at a moral junction, and it’s time to decide whether it has any real worth, or needs to be outlawed. There is legislation before Congress to federally regulate it, and it needs to pass. As former jockey Gary Stevens testified during a hearing, “There needs to be a national governing body to regulate these things and create a national standard with rules and consequences that are enforced . . . or our sport will not survive another decade.”
Horse racing, perhaps more than any other sport, confronts the participants with their own characters. In other games we are only responsible for ourselves. In racing, the entire content of the sport is about how we handle the horses, what our obligations are to them. And we are failing them.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.