This is hardly proof that thoroughbred racing has cured its creeping moral sickness. It only proves that O’Neill knows he can’t take another major public scandal at the moment, and neither can his sport. The real, longer-view truth is that Doug O’Neill hurts horses, and everybody in this beautiful-turned-rotten game knows it, and won’t do anything about it.
We should be grateful that I’ll Have Another won’t be on the track at risk of a public breakdown on Saturday. But somewhere, on another track, in a less publicized race, a sore-legged horse will run. About 800 horses die racing each year, an average of two per day, and another 3,500 or so suffer injuries so bad they can’t hobble to the finish line. That rate is intolerably high — but you know what? It’s nothing compared with O’Neill’s.
On Thursday, the Thoroughbred Times posted an item looking at O’Neill’s safety record. It was the worst in the Belmont Stakes field: 6.1 incidents for every 1,000 starts, “a rate of nearly twice the average of such incidents.” That report followed one by the New York Times last week that found ONeill’s horses were injured at more than twice the national rate.
Throughout the Triple Crown season, O’Neill has been Mister Affable when confronted with his abysmal record. He has been hit with 15 drug violations by racing commissions in four states over the last dozen years, including his recent 45-day suspension handed down in California. Yet he continues to be permitted to saddle mounts, presumably because he is one of the most quotable and profitable figures in the paddock.
He invites people to come to his barn and see how happy and shiny his horses are, how well cared-for and how indulged with carrots and peppermint. Why, it’s like a chapter out of “Black Beauty.” When asked about the topic of breakdowns, he says, sorrowfully and repentantly, how much he loves the horses, and swears that his transgressions are all in the past, the breakdowns were just a matter of inexperience.
But O’Neill is not some neophyte. He has been a major figure in California racing since 2000, with the largest stable in the southern half of the state. The worst incidents of his career didn’t come a decade ago. They came in 2009 and 2010. And when you hear the names of the horses and the details, the statistics come to life.
In 2009 O’Neill’s gelding Mi Rey broke down in a $10,000 claimer on opening day at Del Mar. That same year, O’Neill raced Lava Man, I’ll Have Another’s stable pony, even though he had undergone surgery for chips in his ankles. The horse finished dead last in San Gabriel, with blood on his hind feet.