Saturday, September 11, 2010
Chocolate or Strawberry?
This is about a conversation some five years ago, around the time racing officials in California had just begun testing for milkshakes. One recipe I found for milkshakes was three parts sodium citrate, two parts sodium bicarbonate, two parts calcium carbonate and one part potassium citrate. They'd put whip cream and a cherry on top, only that might jam up the tubing by which the performance-enhancing concoction is sent into a horse's body. To my knowledge, Julia Child never whipped up one of these confections on her TV show.
Trainers in the standardbred game were milkshaking their horses when Richard Nixon was president, in the belief that the stuff would deter muscle fatigue and increase endurance. The practice came to the thoroughbreds late, as though a trainer in the boondocks had come across an old veterinarians' handbook and the word had spread like a rumor about the vicar at a church picnic. By the mid-2000s, the integrity police in California heard about milkshakes without going to McDonalds. They began testing.
As usual, the trainers were several steps, if not years, ahead of the chemists. "We think Doug O'Neill is doing this," a member of the California Horse Racing Board told me in 2005. I never felt that the conversation was off the record, but I never printed it or even asked O'Neill about it, because it was only a theory. At the time, the O'Neill stable was cresting. His horses earned more than $9 million that year, with Lava Man, a remarkable gelding, the bell cow of the barn. Lava Man has been retired, but O'Neill has marched on. Since 2002, his horses have earned more than $60 million, and when I recently looked, he ranked 12th nationally in purses.
In May of 2006, one of O'Neill's horses did go over. And there have been a series of overages for milkshakes since then, for O'Neill horses that have run both inside and outside California, the latest being a violation this summer at Del Mar, where O'Neill was the leading trainer in races won. O'Neill's milkshake transgression was the only violation of its kind the entire Del Mar season.
O'Neill has denied culpability at every turn, and he is expected to contest the Del Mar violation. The racing board, which has a history of cowering and foot-dragging when big-name trainers wave big-name lawyers in their faces, has never thrown the well-known book at O'Neill, or ever suggested that it might lock up his horses and throw away the key. This is a racing board that speaks loudly and carries a little stick.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, O'Neill made some comments that are bagatelle in the scheme of things, but startling just the same. He said that if he was really going to fiddle with a horse, why would he pick a race that was worth only $9,000 to the winner? We're all adults here, and a few of us even lay a bet from time to time. Left unsaid are the betting patterns on the horse in question, and whether the barn, or anyone connected with the horse, stood to make a killing at the wickets.
"I want to be a positive mover in this game, which I think is on the upswing," O'Neill also told the newspaper. "I don't understand why something like this, an eighth-place finish in a small race and high test, couldn't have been in-house while not bringing negativity to the sport."
Put the two statements together and you have O'Neill saying that a cheap race isn't worth tampering with, and then isn't worth public dialogue once the tampering is discovered. I once successfully sued a publishing company after it reprinted one of my stories without permission. Before the trial, the editor who had overstepped his bounds, and was asking me to drop the case, said that the payment might come out of his own pocket and he had a bunch of kids. I think the number was six. I said to him, "How many kids do you have to have before you can start stealing somebody else's work?" At the trial, the number of children never came up. Nor should the the purse of the race when Doug O'Neill's day of accountability comes due.