x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rooting for I'll Have Another creates a conflict of interests

Many are cheering for I'll Have Another to win the Triple Crown but have a disdain for the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill.

Many are hoping for I'll Have Another to win the Belmont and take the Triple Crown, but also don't like the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, right
Many are hoping for I'll Have Another to win the Belmont and take the Triple Crown, but also don't like the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, right


Some horses cope with a condition common among humankind: attention deficit disorder.

Sufferers - the four-legged ones, not the two - are fitted before races with blinkers, a fabric hood designed to block out distraction and maintain focus.

We viewers of the Belmont Stakes need our own imaginary blinkers.

I'll Have Another takes aim Saturday at the Triple Crown, an achievement that has become as pie in the sky as world peace.

When last we went bonkers over a thoroughbred three-peat, Grease and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were filling cinemas, the Bee Gees were blasting from the radio, Ashton Kutcher was a newborn and the mothers of Kobe Bryant and Usher were soon to deliver celebrity-to-be sons.

The year was 1978. Affirmed fended off Alydar thrice in 35 days, becoming the third Triple Crown champion of the decade.

The enormity of the feat was wearing off. So would our resulting exhilaration, if this frequency continued.

In hindsight, our worries were misplaced, and since then they have shifted to whether one more will happen before we are put out to pasture.

So, what is not to like with I'll Have Another making another visit to the winner's circle?

Well, there is this: his trainer is a cheater - 15 times Doug O'Neill been suspended or fined for drug violations involving his stable, more than once per year. Just two weeks ago, the California racing association banned him for 45 days because a horse under his watch tested for excessive levels of a restricted medication.

Being toothless and bordering on gutless, the board delayed imposing the suspension until July 1. (Penalties apply only to the particular state, but other states usually recognise it in their own.)

Then it gallingly revealed its motive by expressing the hope that the California-based O'Neill returns home with the Triple Crown.

There are few, if any, trainers without sin, but O'Neill has been egregious. He has left us with the conflicting notion of cheering for the horse and against the horseman.

O'Neill's colleagues are this week paying for his discretions, like an entire class that must stay after school as payback for the misbehaviour of one student.

New York's racing authority, wishing to eliminate a shred of suspicion that might taint the Belmont's legitimacy, decreed that all contestants be housed in the same barn under strict surveillance from Wednesday until race day. Horses were screened upon entry for drugs in their system. Everything from feed to hay is inspected as if passing through airport security. Some trainers are grumbling, for good reason, about the unprecedented arrangement as horses are creatures of habit. And their handlers are overprotective and spoiled on easy access, so to inconvenience them for the foul-ups of one is unfair.

Justifiably, additional punishment applies only to O'Neill. He is prohibited from "treating" any horses on the Belmont backside without a board investigator present. He must submit veterinary records for them the morning after treatment.

To his credit, O'Neill has not cried foul. While proclaiming innocence regarding the more serious charges in California and denying accusations elsewhere, he seems somewhat chastened.

I'll Have Another, most likely, will not win. That 11 Kentucky Derby/Preakness winners since Affirmed have settled for two out of three is no coincidence.

Although this Belmont cast is hardly daunting, the harsh truth is that horses are no longer bred for three gruelling races in such a compact time frame. These challengers may be less talented, but all are fresher, none having endured the Derby and Preakness.

I'll Have Another's chances are compromised further by his jockey's inexperience. Mario Gutierrez is a rising star, but a stranger to the long-distance Belmont Stakes, which can seem like a cross-country ride.

As venerable trainer Wayne Lukas says, jockeys lose this race more than their horses do.


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