Trainer Doug O'Neill has taken his lumps, many of them deserved. And owner Paul Reddam has taken his lumps for employing O'Neill. But recent news reports about their handling of I'll Have Another during his run at the Triple Crown and how they dealt with the colt's problems with arthritis shed new light on the pair. This is obviously not a win-at-all-costs owner-trainer team but one that in this instance played by the rules and in the end did the right thing by their horse.
That probably wasn't the intent of a spate of stories that came out earlier in the week that pointed fingers at O'Neill, Reddam and the sport in general because veterinary records showed that I'll Have Another was x-rayed after his win in the Preakness and the x-rays revealed that the colt had osteoarthritis. He was treated with painkillers and a synthetic joint fluid. At first keeping a tight lid on the situation, O'Neill and Reddam could have been more transparent. But, eventually and apparently, they gave up on trying to get the horse right and announced that he had been withdrawn from the Belmont because of "tendonitis" and retired.
Dr. Larry Bramlage, one of the most respected equine veterinarians in America, has read the stories and studied the veterinary reports and has come to the same conclusion most people in racing have -- this is much ado about nothing.
"I would guess that with every horses over the last 34 years that won the first two legs of the Triple Crown they were x-rayed after the Preakness," Bramlage said. "That's routine care. Further, I bet Michael Phelps got done over with a fine-toothed comb after he qualified for the Olympics in the trials. Probably you have to put air coolers on those MRI machines down at the Olympic training center because they're looking for any little, bump, bruise, anything they need to be aware of when those athletes are training."
On the fact that I'll Have Another had osteoarthritis, Bramlage said: "He had only run four days before they took the x-ray and won the second leg of the Triple Crown, so how can they allege he had been having serious problems all along? They must not have been too serious. How unusual is it to have this problem? It's not unusual at all. Dr. [Jim] Hunt [who treated I'll Have Another] said it was a small localized place. Osteoarthritis is a very general term."
The story of I'll Have Another sounds a lot like Shaquille O'Neil's battle with arthritis in a toe. Then with the Lakers, he played through the injury thanks in part to a painkiller called Indocin. When it became more than he could bear, he underwent surgery and missed the beginning of the 2002-2003 season. No harm, no foul.
If some are to be believed, the backstretches of America's racetrack are shadowy, nefarious places where outlaw trainers and vets run amok. There very may well be available illegal concoctions that O'Neill could have used that would have had I'll Another feeling no pain by Belmont Day, but those sorts of drugs never entered into the picture. Everything given to the horse to deal with his ailment was legal.
With attempts to manage the arthritis apparently not working to their satisfaction, O'Neill and Reddam had a choice to make. They could have run I'll Have Another in the Belmont, taken their shot at racing immortality, a $1 million purse and a victory that would have added many millions more onto his stud value.
"I think some people would have chosen to run him," Bramlage said.
But it wouldn't have been the right thing do and O'Neill and Reddam knew it.
I do think the injury would have gotten worse and I think it would have affected his performance.
”-- Dr. Larry Bramlage, veterinarian
"I don't think he would have suffered any sort of catastrophic injury had they run him," Bramlage said. "I do think the injury would have gotten worse and I think it would have affected his performance. Had it come out that he ran with an injury that would have been so much worse than this on so many different levels."
The horse racing industry has been bombarded with negative publicity over the last several months, and some of it has been fair. There are far too many drugs, legal and illegal, in the sport and the cheaters are rarely handed anything more than ineffective and insubstantial penalties. Having been suspended because some of his horses tested positive for elevated carbon dioxide levels, often the result of a trainer using an illegal potion known as a milkshake, O'Neill has been a part of the problem.
Here, though, he didn't cheat, didn't use anything illegal. He dealt as best he could with a problem and when he saw that it had turned into a serious concern he looked out for his horse and didn't risk putting him in any danger by running in the Belmont.
Nothing bad happened here. Nothing at all.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.