As Preakness nears, trainer Doug O'Neill still difficult to figure out

Mike Amodei has a son now. James is slightly autistic. At age 15, he's a few years older than Doug O'Neill was when Amodei met him 30 years ago.

O'Neill was a "cocky little shooter" on the sixth-grade basketball team Amodei coached. And it was Amodei who first took O'Neill, now the trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner, to the track in California.


And, of course, one of the things James Amodei has locked into is horse racing. He'll watch the races on television at home in South Bend – Mike Amodei now writes and edits Catholic school textbooks out of Notre Dame's press – and wait for O'Neill's horses to race.

O'Neill, if he knows James is watching, will do his best to get on camera for an interview and say hello.


"He always texts me back if I say 'Good luck,'" Mike Amodei said. "And he always makes sure James feels a part of it."

Amodei and his family drove to Maryland for today's Preakness to watch O'Neill's I'll Have Another try to become the 12th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since it last was completed, in 1978 by Affirmed. When we spoke, he was already thinking ahead to working his way through the crowd and toward the winner circle, as he did in Kentucky.

"That experience, running into the security guards and getting to shout, 'We're with Doug O'Neill!' Can you imagine it?" he said. "And then we got there. It was just jubilation."

Count Amodei among the many who swear that Doug O'Neill is the man the media has seen. Grateful to be here, ready to talk to anybody, quick with a joke (usually at his own expense) and always reaching out to those less fortunate. That's their O'Neill.

And then there's the O'Neill that others see. Here's a statement from the Humane Society:

"Doug O'Neill's history of drugging horses is disturbing. According to published reports, over the past 14 years and in four different states, O'Neill has received in excess of a dozen violations issued by state racing commissions for using performance-enhancing drugs. Not surprisingly, horses he has trained have been too often subject to breakdowns that have endangered both the horses and jockeys. Despite this history, O'Neill continues to train at tracks around the country, and this weekend Americans will watch as he attempts to win the Preakness Stakes with I'll Have Another. The drugging of horses in this sport demands immediate reform."

First, it was very difficult for me to even understand the drug charges O'Neill faces. Most of the focus has been on instances where one of his horses was found to have a high TCO2 level. That's evidence, according to regulators, of "milkshaking" – the giving, through a tube run from the nose to the stomach, of a baking soda, sugar and electrolyte cocktail. It is supposed to be a performance enhancer.

O'Neill has been accused of doing this four times. The first three times, he accepted his punishment – fines, probation, short suspensions. He says he did so because the cost to fight the charges was prohibitive and claims he would not know how to milkshake a horse (though it seems very probable he knows someone who does.)

He did fight the most recent charge, one stemming from a horse who ran in August 2010. He eventually sued the California Horse Racing Board in Federal court on the grounds that the state did not have the scientific evidence necessary to move forward with is case. The Federal court said that the matter needs to be handled on the state level.

O'Neill could hear from the state next week. He'll turn 44, and could be in the middle of chasing the first Triple Crown since 1978. The state could suspend him for up to 180 days, but that won't have an effect on the Belmont, a spokesman said.

Clearly, O'Neill plans to fight any result that does clear his name. He's spent $250,000, he says, largely on investigative work into what, beside milkshaking, could cause a horse to have a TCO2 level.


O'Neill plans to discuss the charges of milkshaking when all the legal wrangling is over. Who knows when that might be.

Whatever the case, O'Neill's warm relations with the media will help him. The world works that way. Andy Pettite was nice, and a good pitcher. Roger Clemens was gruff, and a cheater.

As a first-year turf writer, I don't yet have a good sense for how nefarious Doug O'Neill might be – even if he did milkshake his horses four times. It's a tough game to get into. You're dealing with fickle owners, all convinced their horse should win every race. The industry is spread out and lack of oversight means different rules in different states. It's easy to see why those trying to make a living in the sport would use whatever advantage they could. Most of them suspect others are doing it and feel the need to keep ground. Rick Dutrow, the poster boy for violations, is very accomplished. He shouldn't need it. So imagine how a less-established trainer feels.

O'Neill has attempted to explain his high percentage of breakdowns by saying he ran horses who needed more rest because he felt pressure to fill fields. On the surface, that rings true. He's been a champion for California's tracks since winning in Kentucky, urging other trainers to move there. His best friend from childhood, Mark Verge, is now the CEO at Santa Anita. The duo clearly aim to market the sport for a mass audience. And the numbers do show that O'Neill has adjusted to some difficult lessons by running fewer races.

Verge, an entrepreneur and author, figured out how life in the spotlight would be shortly after O'Neill's post-Derby press conference. During it, a Make-A-Wish patient named Hope Hudson came onto the stage. O'Neill had met her earlier in the week and put her atop his stable pony, the $5-million earner Lava Man.

Soon, Verge heard people suggesting that it had all been a publicity stunt. O'Neill was using Hope to soften his image.

"There was such an impulse to tear him down right away," Verge said.

Both Verge and Amodei uttered the exact same sentence to me when I asked about allegations that O'Neill had illegally drugged his horses.

"If Doug said he didn't do it, he didn't do it."

We all want to feel that way about our friends, I suppose.

The governing bodies in charge of overseeing horse racing – as unorganized and disparate as they may be – want to deal in scientific results.

If nothing else, O’Neill’s rise – combined with terrific reporting by the New York Times – has put the spotlight on the process.

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