The man commonly referred to as "Drug O'Neill" may have just won over the hearts of animal enthusiasts by scratching I'll Have Another for the Belmont Stakes.
Doug O'Neill, the horse's trainer, has gained a rather unflattering reputation over the years because of numerous drug violations when it comes to his horses. The violations have led to the harsh nickname, which has been thrust into the spotlight even more recently because of I'll Have Another's Triple Crown quest. But now that O'Neill has put the well-being of his horse over the potential glory of horse racing's first Triple Crown since 1978, the "Drug O'Neill" moniker might soon be replaced by "Hug O'Neill" amongst casual fans.
OK, bad joke, but you get the point.
O'Neill's history of improperly medicated horses includes 17 rulings against him dating to 1997, according to The Associated Press. The trainer has reportedly maintained that all of his violations were for "therapeutic medications" in excess of allowable limits, not for banned drugs, but not everyone is buying it. According to Richard Sams, director of the HFL Sport Science Laboratory, the official testing lab for Kentucky and Virginia's racing commissions, O'Neill's statements are debatable.
"I think from his point of view, he sees everything as something to help the horse — and in his mind that is therapeutic," Sams reportedly said. "I think racing regulators see things a bit differently than he sees them, and with reason."
Sams' viewpoints aren't shared by all of those within the sport, though, as there's some, including the elder statesman among trainers, D. Wayne Lukas, who feel that O'Neill hasn't exactly gotten a fair shake.
In any event, it's clear that O'Neill and his "tactics" are as polarizing a topic as you'll find in horse racing, even if — as The Associated Press points out — he's hardly the only trainer with a history of drugging horses. By scratching I'll Have Another in the wake of some swelling to the horse's left front leg, though, any past transgressions are likely to be knocked down the totem pole in the minds of many because, clearly, this is a man who cares for his horse.
"We ain't taking any chances," O'Neill said Friday on The Dan Patrick Show after breaking the news that I'll Have Another would not run in Saturday's race. "There are people who are going to want to slap me around, but I have to do what's best for the horse."
O'Neill is right. There are going to be those who will want to slap him around. There's the gambling contingent and those looking for some sort of entertainment value out of Saturday's race. After all, for casual horse racing fans, watching a horse go for the Triple Crown is really one of the only reasons to tune in to the three-race slate each year.
But even despite the disappointment, the amount of people who want to slap O'Neill around may have decreased, because he's shown that he is a man of some integrity — a characteristic that was once questioned. If I'll Have Another had been forced to race, suffered an injury and was euthanized on the track, a la Eight Belles in 2008, O'Neill would have found himself in the hottest water yet.
Come post time on Saturday, the Belmont Stakes will no longer have the appeal it once had, but O'Neill still made the correct decision — for him as much as the horse.
Hats off, Mr. O'Neill. Your unflattering nickname could soon be a thing of the past.
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