By JUSTIN PRITCHARD, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The affable man with the horse that may become the first Triple Crown winner in more than a generation can't seem to outrun his unflattering nickname: "Drug" O'Neill.
But Doug O'Neill is far from the only trainer in Saturday's Belmont Stakes with a history of improperly medicated horses. The Associated Press reviewed the histories of all 11 trainers with horses in the race and found that 10 had at least one violation of medication regulations set by state racing boards.
O'Neill has been under the most scrutiny because his colt, I'll Have Another, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and is the 4-5 favorite to add the Belmont and complete the first Triple Crown in 34 years.
"We had the black cloud before he won the Derby," D. Wayne Lukas, the elder statesman among trainers, said of horse racing's drug problems. "Now it's just gotten darker."
Lukas, who will run 20-1 Optimizer in the Belmont, didn't mention his own record. He has had almost as many violations as O'Neill, though spanning a longer career with a larger stable and including none in the last 13 years.
That's something Penny Chenery, the doyenne of the sport and owner of the great Triple Crown champion Secretariat, apparently didn't realize when she told The Atlantic magazine that I'll Have Another's owner, J. Paul Reddam,"should be embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record."
In fact, only one trainer in the Belmont has a clean record — Kelly Breen, whose horse, My Adonis, was a last-minute entry. Five of the others have had a single violation, typically for medications commonly used either to control inflammation or to prevent internal bleeding while racing. Their use is legal only within bounds.
AP's review included hundreds of rulings from state racing commissions collected by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which represents the sport's regulators. The majority of violations were unrelated to medications; improper paperwork was common, and there were a few for profane tirades as well.
O'Neill shrugs off his nickname and denies the behavior it implies.
"Not good," he said when asked how it makes him feel. "But it just happens that my name rhymes with that.
"You can say whatever you want. I know at the end of the day I love my horses and I take great care of my horses."
For the 11 Belmont trainers, AP found 64 medication violations in the association's database, which is regarded as the industry's most comprehensive. The database did not include two violations O'Neill had in California for elevated levels of carbon dioxide in his horses' blood. Adding those two, O'Neill had 17 rulings against him dating to 1997.
Only the two biggest names in the sport, Lukas and Bob Baffert, were anywhere close to that number. According to the association's data, Baffert actually had more, with 20, and Lukas had 15.
Dale Romans, who will saddle second-choice Dullahan, had five violations, four of them for improper administration of commonly used medications. His most recent were two violations three years ago in Florida. Ken McPeek, the only trainer with two horses in Saturday's race, had four violations, the last a positive test for the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in Illinois in 2005.
The five trainers with one violation were Manuel Azpurua, Chad Brown, Michael Matz, Dominick Schettino and Doodnauth Shivmangal.
One longtime testing official who reviewed O'Neill's violations record for AP said he didn't find it particularly egregious.
"There are a lot of people in racing that have records similar to his," said Richard Sams, director of the HFL Sport Science Laboratory, the official testing lab for Kentucky and Virginia's racing commissions. "He's getting a lot of attention right now obviously because he has the horse to beat."
The amounts that state boards fined Baffert and Lukas were much lower than O'Neill's total, generally reflecting the more routine nature of most of the violations. Lukas was assessed $500, Baffert $5,800 — and O'Neill $32,550.
Lukas did, however, have one of the most serious violations — a positive test for the narcotic painkiller oxymorphone — more than 30 years ago. And Baffert — who trains Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister but will run 8-1 shot Paynter on Saturday — got in trouble in 2001 after one of his horses tested positive for morphine. He blamed contaminated feed.