Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another galloped over the track at Belmont on Friday for the first time, about 12 hours after news broke that the colt’s trainer had been suspended 45 days.
Doug O’Neill is not in danger of missing the final leg of the Triple Crown, as his California suspension – which would likely be upheld by other states – will not begin until some time after the June 9th race.
O’Neill was found guilty of racing a horse with a raised total carbon dioxide count in its blood. He’d been fighting that charge since August 2010 and vigorously denied that he “milkshaked” the horse Argenta. The California Horse Racing Board did, in fact, rule that he had not given the horse the illegal mixture of soda bicarbonate, sugar and electrolytes, but suspended him anyway.
O’Neill, who has not returned phone calls seeking comment, released the following statement: "I'm gratified that the CHRB found that I did not ‘milkshake’ a horse or engage in any intentional conduct that would result in an elevated TC02 level. I plan on examining and reviewing all of my options following the Belmont Stakes, but right now I plan on staying focused on preparing for and winning the Triple Crown.”
The ruling came on O’Neill’s 44th birthday. He’s still in California and does not plan to join his crew overseeing I’ll Have Another’s training at Belmont until Sunday.
Assistant Jack Sisterson said Friday that while the ruling at least partially exonerated O'Neill, the distraction was "frustrating." Many things can naturally raise the level of TCO2 in a horse, he said, but stain of doubt on O'Neill's record cannot be removed at this point.
"We've never done anything outside the rules," said Sisterson, 27, and a member of Team O'Neill since 2010. "I'm around the horses all the time and there's nothing being done that goes against any rule."
Sisterson said that I'll Have Another continues to be lively as he takes to the unique Belmont track, which in addition to being longer has wider turns and deeper dirt.
“You know, we just want to make sure he has that same stride over it, and it looks like he does,” Sisterson said after I’ll Have Another’s mile gallop. “The energy is fantastic and we really couldn’t be any happier at this point.”
I’ll Have Another will “gallop right into the race,” Sisterson said, as Team O’Neill will simply attempt to keep the horse happy and fresh for the next two weeks. He’ll be the 30th horse all-time to reach the Belmont with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown events. Only 11 have succeeded.
Sisterson is still searching for a Team O’Neill headquarters in New York – they rented a house near Boston Street while in Baltimore for the Preakness – and have been annoyed at the traffic on Long Island.
But for now the skeleton crew has shunned sightseeing and promotion. They were everywhere in the Charm City.
“It’s just 24 hours a day working for the horse at this point,” Sisterson said. “That’s all we can think of. We’re so close. Two down, one to go.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun