Veterinarians who examined Preakness winner I'll Have Another before and after the race at Pimlico Race Course said this week that he was healthy and that his medication regimen was not unusual.
The New York Times reported that the colt, who also won the Kentucky Derby but scratched with a tendon injury a day before the Belmont Stakes, had suffered from osteoarthritis and was given "powerful painkillers and a synthetic joint fluid" in the days leading up to the final leg of the Triple Crown. While doctors who reviewed records detailing I'll Have Another's treatment in New York portrayed this treatment as a potentially dangerous attempt by trainer Doug O'Neill to force an ailing horse to keep running, O'Neill and others maintain that was not the case.
O'Neill, reached Thursday in California, said he would not discuss the specifics of I'll Have Another's treatment during the Triple Crown run or the Times article. He said he preferred to "take the high road."
"I think there's a misunderstanding out there about the treatments," he said. "It was all routine stuff, like you or I taking an Advil. We love the horses."
He did question the Times' decision to have four veterinarians review logs listing procedures performed on the horse and medications administered and then speak to his condition.
"To have four veterinarians who didn't actually work with the horse speculate based on a few records doesn't seem right," he said.
Two doctors who examined I'll Have Another in Baltimore said the horse was healthy and well cared for.
"Nothing at all would have suggested a single problem," said Dr. David Zipf, the Maryland Racing Commission's chief veterinarian. "I watched the horse, saw how he went on the track, watched him cool out, saw how his connections treated him. He was fine."
Dr. Nick Meittinis, hired by O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam to oversee care of the horse here, examined him regularly and was consulted on every medication given to the horse.
"Everything they gave him was absolutely routine, absolutely allowed and his blood work absolutely flew through the labs," he said.
I'll Have Another has been sold for $10 million and shipped to a breeding farm in Japan, but he remains the focal point of a simmering discussion about safety and drug issues in the sport. At a Senate hearing Thursday, testimony differed on the issue of medicating horses; Team Valor International CEO Barry Irwin, who keeps a stable at the Fair Hill Training Center and owns 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, called for strict restrictions on pain medications and anti-bleeding drugs, while others argued for their use.
Congressional leaders are exploring whether horse racing, which benefits from a law allowing simulcasting and betting across state lines, is in need of stricter federal regulation. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, has proposed legislation that would create an oversight body with the power to ban all race-day medications, expel trainers who repeatedly violate rules and oversee drug testing programs. State associations handle most of that work now, but they have been dubbed ineffective by some industry leaders.
O'Neill, like many of his peers, is in favor of a national governing body for the sport that would codify rules and procedures.
Maryland officials, meanwhile, stood by their process for examining and clearing horses to race.
"We have a pretty simple standard," Mike Hopkins, the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission said. "If our vet has any doubt, he makes one call to the stewards and they scratch the horse right away."
Zipf said he never had any reason to suspect I'll Have Another was hurting or being given drugs to unreasonably mask pain. He examined the horse shortly after he arrived in Baltimore on May 7 and then watched him gallop on several mornings.
Zipf said all medications given to I'll Have Another were recorded. Officials also tested the residue left in syringes for "anything nasty" and to ensure they matched with what trainers reported giving their horses. Any anomalies in the post-race testing would trigger a thorough review of the medication logs. Samples from all of the horses who ran in the Preakness came back clean, Hopkins said.
Meittinis, who worked with I'll Have Another daily, called the New York Times' focus on osteoarthritis "an unbelievable level of sensationalism" and said the horse was sound.
"Did he have bumps and bruises? Of course," he said. "There's no athlete that doesn't. While osteoarthritis can be dangerous, this case was minor and manageable.
"Every day in the life of every horse, decisions are made as to what is or is not dangerous. You figure out what to do, and we did the right thing with I'll Have Another while he was here."
Meittinis, who said he did a brief review of I'll Have Another's treatment in New York and saw nothing out of the ordinary, had checked I'll Have Another right after the Preakness and found no problems. He applauded O'Neill's decision to request X-rays a few days later in New York — which led to the osteoarthritis diagnosis — and ultimately to scratch the colt when his condition worsened.
"They sacrificed the Triple Crown," he said. "That's the Holy Grail, and they gave it up to take every step to do right by the horse. They should be applauded, not criticized."
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board took the unusual step of collecting I'll Have Another's complete veterinary and medication records because of O'Neill's previous violations. The trainer signed a special addendum to his license application and was required to disclose any previous violations. On a hand-written form, he listed 18 — not all related to medication issues — and added, "This is what I recall. If there is anything I've missed, please bring to my attention and I will explain. Thank you!"
Irwin — whose primary trainer, Graham Motion, has never had a medical violation — said at the congressional hearing in response to a question about repeat offenders that he'd "like to wave" O'Neill "good-bye" from the sport because of his previous infractions.
On Wednesday, O'Neill dropped his appeal of a 40-day suspension and $15,000 fine, levied the week after the Preakness for an incident in 2010. While California's governing body ruled that he did not give his horse an illegal "milkshake" — a mixture of baking soda and electrolytes — in that case, it still found him responsible for the increased total carbon dioxide found in her blood.
O'Neill had vowed to fight the decision, telling reporters he would explain the situation after the Triple Crown ended. But he said Thursday that he has decided his time and money will be better spent in different ways.
"We respect all of the people working for horse racing," he said. "Right now I'm going to focus on finding ways to help the sport."