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SportsPreakness

Meet Doug O'Neill, the man who could play the part of horse racing's fan-favorite or villain

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They wake up, and then they sing.

Team O'Neill — as Kentucky Derby winner Doug O'Neill and his group of assistants and grooms are called — rises early, like all horsemen. In Baltimore, where the crew is preparing I'll Have Another to run in the 137th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, the trainer and his team have been together almost every minute of every day. They rented a house in Canton, off Boston Street. O'Neill likes to tell you how lucky he is to work in a job that so excites him he "wakes up without an alarm." And so, with the dark of another Baltimore night dissipating over the harbor, he and his crew have prepared quietly before making the drive to Pimlico.

Once there, one of them breaks the silence with an improvised line.

"Lately, we've been singing a lot about the big horse," assistant trainer Jack Sisterson says, nodding toward I'll Have Another. "You just start with him, and we go. And that's why we've done what we've done. We have fun."

O'Neill, 43, has been saddling horses since the late 1980s out of his California base. His horses earned more than $10 million in 2006 and 2007, but his chase for the first Triple Crown since 1978 has delivered him, for the first time, to a national audience.

Witty and self-effacing, O'Neill wears canvas shoes, not Cowboy boots. On rainy days this week he donned a dark trench coat over his T-shirt, hunching his shoulders against the storms and waiving people under the protective roof of Barn D. Shortly after arriving, he asked Pimlico vice president Mike Gathagan about hospitals and rec centers he could visit. In a sport fighting to regain even a smidgen of the popularity it once knew, O'Neill appears to be the rare personality who could give fans a long-term rooting interest.

He could also become the symbol for what is wrong with horse racing.

O'Neill is facing a suspension of up to 180 days and a fine of $15,000 for an incident in which one of his horses tested positive for high levels of total carbon dioxide (the suspension would not affect any of the Triple Crown races). The common theory among horse racing regulators is that such a test indicates the horse had been given a "milkshake" — an illegal combination of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes that reduces the build up of lactic acid in a horse's muscles, allowing it to run harder and longer.

O'Neill vigorously defends his record. He swore on his children's eyes one day and to God the next that he'd never milkshaked a horse. He says he's spent $250,000 fighting the latest charge — he had a hearing in the fall, and his case could be settled in an executive session of the California Horse Racing Board next week — after paying fines three other times. At that point in his career, he said, it would have been too costly to fight the battle.

His brother, Dennis, said O'Neill is convinced other factors — possibly the anti-bleeding drug Lasix — could lead to increased TCO2 levels, and O'Neill has repeatedly invited the media to a discussion of the incident once it has been fully adjudicated.

"Come on out to California once all this is over," he said early this week. "When I can, I will explain it all."

From gambler to trainer

Mark Verge, an entrepreneur and author and recently-named CEO of the Santa Anita race track, happened to befriend a young Doug O'Neill at football sign-ups in 1980 because they shared the same birthday. He remembers his first trip to the track with O'Neill.

The date was March 22, 1981. They went with a teacher and basketball coach, Mike Amodei, who only sheepishly admits to placing bets for the teenagers, who hit an exacta on the ninth race and were hooked, splitting less than $200 between them.

O'Neill and Verge would do this for the rest of their school-aged years. Often, they took buses and enticed friends to go along. One, in particular, placed outrageous $10 bets and began weeping on the ride home. He'd taken money meant for a fundraiser and blown it all.

When meets moved far away and tickets would have cost $24 to reach the track, O'Neill and Verge — who funded some of their bets by selling avocados — found men headed that way and asked them to place their bets. Then they waited for the return. Dennis, several years older than Doug and Mark, remembers helping them cut classes to get out to the races.

O'Neill's father was a gambler and had taken Dennis with him to tracks in Michigan. Patrick O'Neill retired from the phone company and moved his family to California, where jobs were available and tracks were plenty.

Doug O'Neill knew at a young age that he wanted to go into the horse game. He thought briefly about accounting.

"I'm glad that didn't work out," he said. He worked as an independent contractor for the family's phone company, but that lasted six months.

"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."

His stable is smaller now, and he runs fewer races (621 last year compared to 1,021 in 2007).

"No one cares more"

O'Neill has known off-the-track tragedy, as well.

Dennis O'Neill recently finished treatment for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and must visit his oncologist every three months. "She's convinced me how tough this thing is," he said. Their older brother, Danny, died of melanoma 13 years ago. Verge can't shake the image of Doug carrying Danny, whittled by the disease, toward the end.

Verge said O'Neill quietly does charity work in California, raising money to fight cancer. In Baltimore, between eating steamed crabs and throwing out the first pitch at an Orioles game, O'Neill visited children at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"You just gotta build 'em up," O'Neill said. "High energy. We'll give to them what we can. We're going to get a lot from them. Being there reminds you that what you're worried about just ain't that big a deal."

That same day, O'Neill had been telling a reporter that he wanted to go into detail about the TCO2 test but couldn't.

Larry "Thumper" Jones, the equine chiropractor who works with O'Neill's horses, charged into the discussion.

"No one cares more about his horses than this man," he nearly screamed. "I've been everywhere. Worked on thousands and thousands of horses. Seen everything. Nobody cares more. I'm telling you that. This guy, he did nothing. I'm telling you."

O'Neill interrupted him.

"Thanks, Thumper," he said. "I mean it. Thank you."

It's true that Jones makes a great deal of money thanks to O'Neill. It's true that others who vouch for him can remember O'Neill as a daring shooter on the sixth-grade basketball team who didn't play much defense. They are too close to the man who could help resuscitate or harm horse racing.

How he's remembered, he knows, will be determined later, by others.

"I just hope it gets a chance to come out," O'Neill said. "I hope we keep winning, and I hope we keep talking about this, and I hope you see it how I see it."

ckorman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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