41,000/1 treble lands O’Neill with new suspension

With Royal Ascot holding centre stage last week it was easy to overlook the latest suspension for American trainer Doug O’Neill. He’s been given a 45 day ban by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) after a 41,000+/1 treble in which his horses showed excessive levels of total carbon dioxide” (TC02) at a race meeting in 2010.

Earlier this month it had seemed that O’Neill might be taking his place in the history books as the trainer of a Triple Crown winner with I’ll Have Another. The horse had been due to run in the Belmont Stakes, but was pulled out on the eve of the race with a tendon injury. The results of O’Neill’s latest brush with the authorities were announced a few days beforehand.

The horse and race at the centre of this incident were about as far removed from the Belmont Stakes as you could get. Argenta had finished eighth in a claiming race at the Del Mar racetrack in August 2010. A blood test showed a level of TCO2 of 39.4 millimoles per litre, well above the supposed naturally occurring limit of 37 millimoles. TCO2 is a measure of the capacity of the lungs to get rid of carbon dioxide from the bloodstream, and when that is increased, the horse gets tired less quickly.

O’Neill has been in trouble for this sort of thing three times before, and at the end of a seven day hearing, the judge, Steffan Imhoff, recommended a lengthy ban of 180 days, although 135 days would be suspended and not drawn down unless the trainer had a further doping contravention in the next eighteen months.

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Initially O’Neill had been accused of “milkshaking” Argenta, that is force-feeding a solution of sodium bicarbonate, but this was not pursued during the hearing. Imhoff said that there was no indication of an increased level of sodium, which would have been the case if milkshaking had taken place.

Instead he called on California’s “trainer insurer rule”, in which the trainer is held responsible for the welfare of his horses. Testing also showed that Argenta had a chloride reading, which “showed serious depletion probably as a result of a Lasix injection (to reduce the likelihood of bleeding) or sweat induced hydration.” Effectively he was saying that the high level of TCO2 could have been caused by any of Lasix, dehydration, or something in the horse’s feed. It wouldn’t matter which of these it was; Argenta’s fitness was affected, and that was O’Neill’s responsibility.

Imhoff also cited a warning to O’Neill from Rick Arthur, the CHRB’s equine medical director that “his training methods were leaving him too few standard deviations from the maximum allowed TCO2 line.” In other words, the authorities would note one or two instances outside the limits, because there will naturally be some variation between animals, but not to the frequency with which O’Neill’s horses were showing.

The clinching factor was that treble. Every horse that raced at the Del Mar meeting in 2010 was tested, and O’Neill-trained horses had the three highest readings. Imhoff said, “The odds of this trifecta being a random event are 41,664 to one,” and that this was sufficient evidence that the trainer was manipulating the levels of TCO2 in his horses.

O’Neill immediately challenged the findings, saying, “I’m gonna be around a while. I’m not planning any 45 day vacations any time soon.” An appeal to the California Superior Court (and later the Supreme Court) seems likely, with an injunction on the ban until that takes place. There’s time for that to take place before the ban is due to come into effect some time after 1 July.

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