"He calls me," Dennis said, "And goes, 'I'm 18-feet in the air and 30 people around me have dead telephones and I have no idea what I'm doing.' "

Doug's oldest brother, Danny, fired him, sending him back to work with horses. Dennis had bought into syndicates by that time and was learning the game with his brother. They had a ranch where they bred and broke horses.

Amodei had helped O'Neill land work with trainer Jude Feld out of high school. O'Neill worked his way through a series of jobs at California tracks, surrounded by men and women who'd been around horses their whole lives.




"I didn't really have that experience, but I had a love of the horses and I just went and did what was asked," O'Neill said. "I hot-walked. I groomed. I just tried to sit back and watch and listen to the people who knew what they were doing."

Sisterson thinks O'Neill's humble beginnings in the sport shaped his approach.

"He just acts like he is thankful to be doing his work," said Sisterson, a 27-year-old from England who'd hoped to be a jockey but grew too tall. He instead came to the United States on a soccer scholarship, to Louisville, where he studied Equine Administration. He's worked with O'Neill for a year.

"The atmosphere he sets is what sets him apart," Sisterson said. "He treats everyone like an equal, with respect. And I think that's something that we've applied to the horses too. Every one is as important as another. You always put their care first, each and every one."

"Doug really worries"

Verge has one story he feels best describes his friend. They had watched Lava Man, the claimer who blossomed into a $5 million earner and now serves as stable pony, run a disappointing race. As they went to check on the horse, a woman charged toward them, waiving a worthless betting slip.

"But before she got to us, Doug cut her off," Verge said. "And he just says, 'Shhhh, we're telling Lava Man he won the race. We don't want him to feel bad. So try to keep it a secret.' He just doesn't take this all as life or death."

Yet both Verge and his brother Dennis say O'Neill has been hurt by talk of racing record. O'Neill has only jokingly given the "no comment" to reporters with drug questions, once telling the group that he'd prefer they be asking why he hadn't gone into male modeling.

"Behind all of that, in his private moments, it has really gotten to him," Dennis said. "He worked to get here and he cares so much about the sport. He finally decided to fight for his reputation and that has dragged out two years, to this point, when he wins the biggest race there is. He's not like me. I don't care about any of this because I know we do the right thing. But Doug really worries."

Verge, who sees his task as marketing horse racing, can't believe how serendipitous his first months on the job have been. His best friend is now his best hope for luring the common fan back to a track. And so Verge has worked tirelessly trying to decipher whether O'Neill's record deserves the questioning it has received.

"I can't get answers from anyone," he said. "No one in California will tell me how many other trainers have tested positive for this. I don't understand who the judges are."

Verge began owning horses not long after he graduated high school and had a stake in Argenta, the horse who tested for high level of TCO2 in 2010.

"That's my horse, and I can't get answers," he said. "And do you think I would allow that with my horse? You think Doug would do that to his best friend's horse?"

O'Neill said he wouldn't know how to administer a milkshake. Dennis O'Neill said the group had to Google the term after they were accused of it, only to find that it requires a tube being shoved up the horse's nose, into it's stomach.

"Who would even do that to a horse?" Dennis said.

O'Neill has also had trouble with breakdowns, with The New York Times finding that he averaged 12 per 1,000 starts. That's twice the national average.

"Early in my career, I was eager," he said. "And I wanted to do what I could to help the racing offices. And I wanted to prove myself. Those are terrible lessons I learned. I ran horses that weren't ready. You can't explain how that feels."