Haskin's Belmont Report: What's Shakin' with Cal Board?

OK, let’s get this straight, just to make sure we’re not all being Punk’d. The California Horse Racing Board, in all its divine wisdom, has decided to dredge up a nearly two-year-old carbon dioxide overage on a Doug O’Neill-trained horse and make a ruling on it two weeks before O’Neill will attempt to sweep the Triple Crown with I’ll Have Another, who should be a feel-good story. But heaven forbid racing should allow one of those.
 
The California board didn’t rule on this six months ago, or a year ago, and even if they didn’t have their findings then or it was under litigation, they apparently felt as if it was in racing’s best interest not to wait until after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) to issue a ruling. And they’re not singling out O’Neill; we get it. They would have done the same thing had it been Bob Baffert or Dick Mandella or most any other trainer. Uh huh.
 
They also decided to issue their ruling at this ill-advised time even though they were aware that the evidence shows the horse involved, Argenta, was not milkshaked, and that the elevated TCO2 level was caused by other means, like perhaps something natural, which is not uncommon. The hearing officer also concluded there were no suspicious betting patterns – Argenta finished out of the money -- and a determination was made that there was no evidence of any intentional acts by O’Neill in regard to this incident.
 
So, the Board decided out of the kindness of their heart to suspend O’Neill “only” 45 days and stay the remainder of a maximum 180-day ban.
 
OK, we fully understand racing’s absolute insurer rule that holds a trainer responsible for any positive, whether deliberate or not. We get it. We get the fact that O’Neill has had a number of other violations over the years.
 
We don’t question the ruling that O’Neill should be suspended if his horse was found to have a TCO2 level above the legal limit. It is something he can always appeal. Under the circumstances, however, and the findings, a fine might have been sufficient, but that’s not the issue here. We understand a horse can show up positive for opium as a result of coming in contact with someone’s poppy seed bagel. Stuff happens.
 
But we do, however, question the timing of it and to some degree even the length of it. Knowing prior to the ruling that O’Neill did nothing intentional and did not milkshake the horse, the Board still went ahead and issued their ruling at this time, fully aware that they would be adding fuel to an already growing media fire. Yet another mind-boggling move for the good of racing, right?
 
This is like some members of PETA and other organizations, having no regard for the facts, coming out of the woodwork and attempting to cut off racing’s left arm, and racing responding to it by attempting to cut off its right arm.
 
Did the CHRB sit down at any point and come to the realization that it didn’t matter if O’Neill was suspended 10 days or five days. The headlines are going to read that the trainer going for the Triple Crown has been suspended for milkshaking, and even if milkshaking is not mentioned in the headline, it will be in people’s minds. No one is going to go down four or five paragraphs into the story to discover that it was proven he did not milkshake the horse or do anything sinister. And many of those who do will read right over that little tidbit of information. All the national media is going to see and play up is the word “suspension.” You add “suspension” to “Kentucky Derby” and “Triple Crown” and you have a media field day, as misguided and misinformed as it may be.
 
Good timing, CHRB.
 
I’ll Have Another stripped
 
Now we move on to the issue of nasal strips and the decision by the New York stewards not to allow I’ll Have Another to wear them, as he has in every one of his starts this year. Did anyone hear any complaints from opposing trainers all year?
 
Nasal strips were all the rage in the 1999 Breeders’ Cup, when a number of winning horses wore them. But they seemed to peter out over the years. Nasal strips are nothing more than a piece of equipment, and the Belmont stewards’ reasoning of not allowing I’ll Have Another to wear them because they need to regulate their use is pretty weak, and once again shows how fractured the rules of this sport are.

NYRA claims they can come loose or fall off before the race if they get wet. Well, bandages do come loose or can fall off on rare occasion. Reins can break, shoes can fall off, tongue ties can come loose. Once again, it’s a bunch of individual minds thinking separately instead of one mind thinking as one. Imagine if every owner of an NFL football team dictated his own rules. And we want to know why racing has problems. It’s not something as trivial as nasal strips; it’s the sport’s lack of uniformity.
 
“The Strips are to protect the horses’ lungs,” Nan Rawlins of FLAIR Nasal Strips said prior to the stewards’ ruling. “But many things go into winning a race. We’re pleased to be a tool for horsemen to protect their horses. And we hope that when NYRA makes its decision, it carefully considers the health and welfare of the horse and the science behind FLAIR.”
 
Apparently they didn’t.

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