Belmont Park interrupts a string of seemingly endless stores, most of them tiny and old, a lot of them vacant. There are Taco Bells and Wendy’s, of course, but little sub shops and ethnic joints, too, run by people who care about the quality of their meatballs or lo mein. Even as the Hampstead Turnpike delivers you to the gates of the facility, it is impossible to fathom the enormity of the place. There’s literally a park guarding the grandstand, a place with trees and fountains where maybe you’d rather sip your beer if, say, the next race doesn’t interest you, or maybe the horse you bet scratched at the last minute. But once inside, once you’ve taken in the broad infield with its two bodies of water, it becomes clear that, yes, it makes sense that this place could, when the circumstances are right, be the center of the sporting world.
On Saturday, a horse was supposed to try to circumnavigate the mile-and-half dirt track here. That horse, I’ll Have Another, had the chance to do something not done in a generation; the much-coveted 20 and early-30 somethings that help drive the economic engine of sports can’t remember a Triple Crown winner.
But I’ll Have Another has a bum tendon, a tiny tear that doesn’t even really bother the colt until somebody squeezes it.
So instead he’ll show up in the winners circle to have his saddle removed one last time, a hobbled athlete left to make a final appearance as the competitors left unscathed prepare to race again.
And there will be subtle things about how I’ll Have Another’s day unfolds, clues to tell him that, no, he won’t get to run. But the horse, really, is none the wiser about any of this; he hadn’t a clue that he could make history.
So this was the solace taken by many on Friday when chances for a Triple Crown floated off like the wispy morning fog, a day before they could even hold a race trumped up by some as possibly the best Belmont ever: I’ll Have Another will go somewhere now – they haven’t decided yet – and spend most of his days frolicking in a field while earning his owner millions as a stud.
For horse racing – the sport and betting vehicle – the path forward leads to no such happy place. I’ll Have Another’s run was charming, thanks to several of the characters involved. Doug O’Neill, the trainer, never took himself too seriously. The jockey, Mario Gutierrez, had come from nothing.
But there were just as many reminders of how sullied the sport’s reputation has become. O’Neill’s past was dragged out, and a suspension for running a horse with a bad blood test levied. In New York, the governor seized the racing operation, and his people took immediate, drastic action by sequestering the Belmont colts in one high-security barn mean to show how seriously they took the safety of the horses. They overcompensated.
Not long after I’ll Have Another was scratched, the conspiracy theories started. This is natural, of course. We know how complex all of this is – and how much money is tied up in it – and don’t have to guess too hard about something more nefarious than a tendon injury that many, many horses would have run through. Down on a bench near the paddock, they were saying it with certainty. Doug O’Neill couldn’t doctor the horse the way he needed to because of the detention barn and decided to scratch.
The state has released a statement saying that blood drawn from all of the horses on Wednesday came back clean. So there’s that, but it doesn’t tell us a whole lot.
Before yesterday’s press conference about I’ll Have Another, I spoke with Dr. Nick Meittinis. A Long Island native whose father trained standardbreds, Meittinis runs the Maryland Veterinary Group and examined I’ll Have Another frequently while the colt was at Pimlico.
Far as I can tell, the only skin Meittinis had in this race is one shared by many: the belief that a Triple Crown winner would help the sport of horse racing. He has no reason, other words, to be anything but straightforward.
He’d been in contact with some of O’Neill’s assistants, who’d sought his feedback. Upon hearing that the horse was feeling pain in his left ankle when the vet squeezed, he concurred with the decision to scratch. Lots of horses run through some pain – they’re no different from human athletes, except for being more complicated and fragile in some ways – but it wasn’t worth it with a horse of this caliber in a race of this magnitude.
When the news of I’ll Have Another’s injury became public, I was working on a story about how a Triple Crown run might bolster the horse racing industry in Maryland. I’d talked to many stakeholders who thought the star power of I’ll Have Another would entice more casual fans to be interested in spending time and money at the track.
Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the response she’s encountered to the near-Triple Crown run was familiar.
“Whenever horse racing is in the news like this for a little bit, you get a lot more people asking questions,” she said. “They don’t really understand the game beyond what they see on TV, and we’re one group that needs to be there to be able to give them answers. That's how you convert them.”
Goodall was also one of many people who said that the emphasis on Doug O’Neill’s medication problems has been unfair.
“These are really complicated issues that are hard to understand or explain in five minutes,” she said. “The focus should be on the horse and the chase for the Triple Crown. The other issues have been taken care of by California, and Doug O’Neill has dealt with it. I’m not trying to sweep it under the rug – this needs to be dealt with – but there’s a lot to it.”
She’s right. Since O’Neill won the Derby I’ve been trying to understand what his past indiscretions really mean. He’s now been suspended and/or fined four times for TCO2 violations. The first three, he did not fight. The cost to appeal would have been more than the fine itself, he said. He fought the most recent incident, which happened in California in August 2010 and landed him the 45 day suspension set to begin later in the summer. Of course the California Horse Racing Board ruled that he’d done nothing explicitly wrong. He hadn’t “milkshaked” the horse. The TCO2 level had merely gotten too high, and he was responsible.
O’Neill believes TCO2 levels can be raised naturally, or by using the anti-bleeding drug Lasix. His quest to clear his name probably has not ended. Doctors will testify. People will point to trainers with large stables -- like Graham Motion -- who've never had one TCO2 violation.
But the fractious debate, along with so many different rules in so many different states, will make it difficult for O’Neill to have one set of facts reach the public. That’s one of the reasons why he is one of many who has pushed for a national commission to codify oversight of the sport.
That, it seems, is the right idea. This goes to what Goodall said: a national group would offer more constant, clear and present “answers” to those seeking information about horse racing. There'd be one voice explaining what a raised TCO2 level means and why it is or isn't a bad thing.
Resistance will come from the entrenched. Much of the money spent and made on horse racing comes from or goes to the individual states.
It’s reminiscent of the Bowl Game or playoff debate that has raged on and on in college football. I’ve long favored a playoff format – it just seems to be the most honest way to do it – but those who are benefiting from the bowl games like the status quo. I even understand fans nostalgic for the nearly mystical way in which we named a national champion. Your team had to make its way through its schedule and win enough games but also hope that whatever combination of voters or formulas or whatever was in place would spit them out as one of the top teams in the country.
There’s a parallel in horse racing. The sport operates in enclaves and only at Triple Crown time do horses emerge on the national stage. And that’s part of the appeal: in a way, to the public, they’re all underdogs. They’ve all gone through a process involving some luck and some talent and some other things we don’t understand to get to this point.
But I doubt a governing body would impugn that element of these couple of weeks when horse racing charges onto the national stage.
Tom Mullikin, the manager at Sagamore Farm, often talks about the operation’s goal of being “professional.” When the jockey they had hired to ride for them in the Preakness, Kent Desormeaux, failed a Breathalyzer test the day before, they moved quickly to replace him. “We just can’t have that,” Mullikin said at the time.
So it makes sense that he sees all the attention paid to O’Neill’s troubles as an opportunity.
“I really think there’s been a groundswell of people saying, ‘We need to get this figured out,’” he said. “Let’s legitimize this as a professional sport, so people don’t view us as gypsies running doped up horses. I think we’ve got to be cognizant of how the public views us because, though it might be cliché, perception becomes reality.”
What horse racing needs -- as O'Neill and others have said -- is a unified body changing the reality of the sport. Only then can the perception change.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times