Doug O'Neill, the trainer of Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another, was suspended 45 days after one of his horses had an excessive level of carbon dioxide, but the punishment won't start before he saddles the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
The suspension comes in the final weeks of I'll Have Another's attempt to become horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed 34 years ago. The colt trained by O'Neill won the Derby on May 5 and then took the Preakness on Saturday.
The California Horse Racing Board met in closed session Thursday at Betfair Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., to consider the recommended decision of a hearing officer in O'Neill's case. The board agreed with the officer's recommendations, which included the maximum punishment and fine - $15,000 - for the trainer, who turned 44 on Thursday.
While elevated carbon dioxide is associated with ``milkshaking,'' the officer agreed with O'Neill that his horse Argenta had not been fed a mixture of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes that enhances performance and combats fatigue. The officer did not indicate what might have caused the overage.
``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,'' O'Neill said in a statement issued after the ruling. ``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 suspension comes at a time when racing is under heavy scrutiny for the way horses are prepared for their races.
O'Neill had vigorously proclaimed his innocence in the 2010 case from the beginning, and said he spent $250,000 defending himself.
``I know I didn't milkshake a horse. None of us around the barn milkshaked any horses,'' O'Neill said Wednesday. ``You got to have rules and I respect rules, but when you get faulty science involved, it costs a lot of money unfortunately, but you've got to fight it and that's what we're doing.''
O'Neill was cited by the racing board after Argenta tested for a high level of TCO2 - a Class 3 violation - in its blood after finishing eighth in a race at Del Mar on Aug. 25, 2010. The horse is co-owned by Mark Verge, the CEO of Santa Anita race track and O'Neill's childhood friend.
The officer found there were no suspicious betting patterns in the race and that there was no evidence of any intentional acts on the part of O'Neill in connection with the incident.
However before the hearing, the parties had stipulated that the Maddy Laboratory at UC Davis detected an excess level of TCO2 in the horse's blood sample, and CHRB Rule 1887 holds a trainer to be ultimately responsible for the condition of a horse.
Based on that rule and mitigating factors, the hearing officer recommended that O'Neill should be suspended for 45 days, with an additional 135 days stayed for 18 months, provided he commits no further Class 1, 2 or 3 violations in any state. The racing board agreed with the recommendations.
CHRB executive director Kirk Breed will decide when O'Neill's suspension will begin, but it will be no sooner than July 1.
The Jockey Club has said that elevated total carbon dioxide levels, regardless of cause, are violations of the rules and penalties for excessive TCO2 are severe. It urges trainers and their veterinarians to work closely to identify any procedure or practices that may elevate such levels in horses.