As Preakness nears, trainer Doug O’Neill is dogged by questions

BALTIMORE — In the midst of the greatest time of his professional life, horse trainer Doug O’Neill is being followed around by an asterisk.

Reporters want to know about his Kentucky Derby-winning horse, I’ll Have Another. They want to know about O’Neill himself — how he got started, who he is, what he thinks about any number of topics. They want to know about young jockey Mario Gutierrez, who should have been way too green to ride the kind of race he did at Churchill Downs. They want to know about owner J. Paul Reddam, who made his money in the loan business and who named the horse by reprising a scene at home, where he sits on the couch, eats a cookie and requests another one from his wife.

But after the niceties are taken care of, they also want to know about the problems O’Neill has had with the horse-racing police, the drug testers and governing boards that fine and suspend trainers for administering medications perceived to be performance-enhancing and made illegal.

When O’Neill is in a room, that elephant is there with him.

It is troubling to watch. We are either being sold a bill of goods by O’Neill, who would then deserve an Academy Award in acting — “I swear on my kids’ eyes,” he says, and what defense could be more compelling?

Or the racing police have wrongly besmirched one of the better stories and people to come along in racing in a while. Most reporters, after a session or two with O’Neill, come away on O’Neill’s side. But none truly know. As Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas said Wednesday morning, “I will not be the judge and jury, and I want you to print that.”

O’Neill is not yet 44 years old, is seldom without a big smile, is as accessible to the media — and the public — as anybody shy of Bob Baffert and is, basically, a husky, bearded teddy bear with a magnetic, self-effacing sense of humor. None of that, of course, proves his innocence. It just makes it more wished for.

The New York Times rounded up the bits and pieces earlier this week, added them up and reported that O’Neill has had “more than a dozen violations in four states in 14 years.” It wasn’t clear whether that was 13,000 violations or 13. It also reported O’Neill’s previously reported 15-day suspension and $1,000 fine last summer.

To be clear, O’Neill is not accused of injecting horses with HGH or LSD or something really sexy-sounding and performance-altering. His accusers say that before a race he has on occasion stuck a rubber hose up a horse’s nose and flushed a concoction of baking soda, water and sugar. That’s what is known as “milkshaking.” It is supposed to reduce fatigue and is not what racing considers a type-A violation. It’s a venial racing sin, but punishable nevertheless.

O’Neill has been here since last week, and has spent each day fielding surge after surge of reporters asking the question. He doesn’t duck it, nor is he thrilled by it. The trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner is usually accorded at least a three-week window of respect, admiration and softball questions. Not this trainer.

In a one-on-one conversation Wednesday morning O’Neill says, “We play by the rules, straight down the middle. We race pure. I am vigorously contesting these charges, and when we get final rulings and the truth is told, you can look forward to having a great story.”

He then heads off to a news conference near the Stakes Barns here at Pimlico. The elephant-in-the-room questions begin immediately. In response, O’Neill is not surly or defensive. He tells the gathered media members that he understands their job and that, were he in their shoes, he’d be asking the same things.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” he says. “I understand that.”

He continues: “I’ve surrounded myself here with great horsemen. Otherwise, I’d be a dead man. I’m not gonna let it get in the way.”

Pretty soon, it’s back to the normal stuff.

“My horse is progressing,” he says. “If anything, he is better now than he was at the Kentucky Derby.”

Asked about Baffert’s Bodemeister, likely the betting favorite, and the super-fast fractions he is expected to turn, O’Neill says, “Bob has won five Preaknesses and, between Mario [jockey Gutierrez] and me, let’s see, we’ve never even been in this race before. Bodemeister will be fine.”

O’Neill talks about throwing out the first ball Tuesday night at the Baltimore Orioles game: “It was high and inside,” he says. “If a batter had been in there, he would have gotten a little chin music.”

He joked about seeing a Preakness mascot, a man calling himself Kegasus, with long, stringy hair, bare chest and legs on wheels behind him in a depiction of a half-horse. “You think you are a little goofy,” O’Neill says, “and then you see something like that and you know you are OK.”

Reporters eventually drift away, notebooks full of good quotes and minds bewildered by the other stuff. Say it ain’t so, Doug.

Down the row of barns, away from the crowd but never far from the action, the 76-year-old godfather of racing, Lukas, mulls it over and sums it up.

“I don’t know Doug that well. He was just starting when I was leaving California,” Lukas says. “I do know that he won the Kentucky Derby and we don’t need this kind of publicity.

“The perception is that our sport needs to be cleaned up. The reality is that it is not that bad.”

The immediate reality is that there is a little asterisk hanging over the Preakness, right or wrong, at a time when racing can afford only blue skies.