With the Triple Crown behind him, trainer Doug O'Neill seems more determined than ever to fight a 45-day suspension handed down by the California Horse Racing Board for an elevated level of total carbon dioxide in a horse he raced at Del Mar in 2010.
"We're gonna' contest it," O'Neill said by phone June 13 in reference to last month's CHRB decision. "I'm going to fight this until it reaches it's conclusion."
O'Neill is known nationally as the conditioner of I'll Have Another , the colt he withdrew from the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) the day before the June 9 race with a tendon injury after the son of Flower Alley captured the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. His latest flap with the CHRB concerns a filly named Argenta, who finished eighth in a low-level claiming race at Del Mar on Aug. 25, 2010. A pre-race blood test showed that Argenta had raced with a level of TCO2 that exceeded the legal limit of 37 millimoles.
Administrative law judge Steffan Imhoff, following a seven-day hearing, recommended that O'Neill be suspended for 180 days because of past violations. But he stayed 135 days of the suspension so long as the trainer has no further medication violations for an 18-month probationary period. In addition, he recommended a $15,000 fine. The CHRB, meeting in closed session May 24, adopted the recommendation.
The CHRB initially announced O'Neill would begin serving his suspension after July 1. As of June 13, executive director Kirk Breed had not determined the exact dates to be served, according to board spokesman Mike Marten.
O'Neill said he has no intention of serving the penalty without first having his day in court. He would presumably go to California Superior Court to get an injunction pending such a hearing, though O'Neill said he would rely on legal counsel to determine his response. A phone message to O'Neill's attorney was not returned.
"I'm gonna' be around awhile," O'Neill said. "I'm not planning any 45-day vacations any time soon."
Imhoff, citing expert testimony during the hearing, found that O'Neill had not intentionally "milkshaked" Argenta -- that is, force-fed the filly an illicit concoction involving sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) by tube in a method that is believed to help increase stamina in horses. Instead, he found O'Neill liable under California's "trainer insurer rule," in which the trainer is held responsible for the welfare of his horse.
O'Neill contends "there was no wrongdoing found" by the ALJ. "I play by the rules. We run a great barn," he said.
Imhoff based his finding that Argenta was not intentionally given a milkshake primarily on testimony that showed the filly's sodium level was not elevated, which would have been the case. He also found that Argenta's chloride reading "showed serious depletion probably as a result of a Lasix injection or sweat-induced hydration."
He reasoned, then, that O'Neill was ultimately responsible for the fitness of the filly, whether the elevated TCO2 was caused by Lasix, dehydration, or feed.
O'Neill declined to discuss the hearing officer's specific findings, saying, "I respect the administrative law judge a ton."
Imhoff found there was evidence that O'Neill was manipulating TCO2 levels in his horses, whether or not it was intentional in the case of Argenta. He noted that all the horses racing at Del Mar that day were tested for TCO2 levels and that O'Neill-trained horses had the three highest readings.
The odds of this trifecta "being a random event are 41,664 to one," Imhoff wrote.
He also noted that Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, had provided warnings to O'Neill "that his training methods were leaving him too few standard deviations to the maximum allowed TCO2 line."
O’Neill served a 15-day suspension in 2010 when his horse Stephen Got Hope exceeded TCO2 levels after a seventh-place finish in the Hawthorne Derby at Hawthorne Racecourse. He had two earlier TCO2 violations in California as well.