Columnist's update: After discussing the Burna Dette situation with the O'Neill stable manager Dennis O'Neill, fellow trainer Kristin Mulhall and the original owners/breeders, Jeff and Suzi Steifel, all via e-mail, I want to make it clear that no purchase attempt of Burna Dette was made by Mulhall or the previous owners/breeders, Jeff and Suzi Steifel. Regretfully the facts were misrepresented in the original posting at my fault. Mulhall attemped a private purchase of another horse, Taxi Fleet, from the O'Neill stable, while the Steifels said they attempted to re-purchase the mare when she was trained by Bob Hess Jr., and not most recently before the Los Alamitos race.
Maybe it's because Doug O'Neill is one of the most likable guys you'll ever meet at the racetrack.
Maybe it's because they don't want to admit that it happened.
But I'm here to tell you what I viewed live on TV last Friday at Los Alamitos was a new low for me in 30-plus years watching horse racing. And I grew up on $2,500 claimers at Charles Town and Penn National, folks. The fact that I was watching Los Alamitos on a Friday night after working all day in this industry should tell you where I shoot from as a supporter of horse racing. It's all I do.
O'Neill, one of the most outgoing and gregarious trainers in the sport and a guy who has never been shy to light up in the media, put himself squarely in the firestorm last week when he and owner Greg Guiol made a shady entry into a bottom-level claiming race at Los Alamitos.
The 5-year-old mare Burna Dette met her maker last Friday while running for a $2,000 claiming price only six weeks after she was purchased for $25,000 by the aforementioned duo. The mare struggled to keep pace, broke down on the far turn and catapulted rider Cesar De Alba head over heels. Minutes later, Burna Dette was euthanized, but the outrage already had flared.
This was not one of those "unfortunate parts of the business" kind of breakdowns that make all of us shudder. Anyone who follows any sport realizes healthy athletes sometimes suffer injuries. This was a red flag waving from the moment the overnight sheet came out with the entries. No amount of explanation from O'Neill, Guiol or the attending veterinarians at Los Alamitos is going to convince any fair-minded person otherwise. And with credit to the Paulick Report online for the "get," O'Neill and Guiol did try and make that public attempt.
Burna Dette was a maiden special weight and allowance winner who finished fourth in a $125,000 stakes race and earned $136,700 in just 20 starts. But she obviously wasn't the most sound horse, and rarely, if ever, worked between starts no matter who was her trainer. She changed hands from Peter Eurton to Bob Hess to eventually Doug O'Neill in the claiming game of horse racing. The mare who sold for $50,000 on Sept. 3, 2009, was sold for $25,000 on June 24 this summer when O'Neill made the claim for Guiol.
Burna Dette got exactly one start for O'Neill on the big circuit, dropped in for a $16,000 claiming race at Del Mar on July 21, already signaling trouble. When no one purchased her away and she finished sixth, the drastic move to unload the mare for $2,000 at Los Alamitos became a blatant, red-flag maneuver. Consider that Burna Dette could have been rested, which was the likely best course of action, or dropped in class for $12,500 or $10,000 or even $8,000, a new bottom-level offered this year at Del Mar.
Retirement also was a potential turn in her career. As a daughter of California's most profilic sire, Unusual Heat, surely she had some value as a broodmare, a value more worthy of the mere $2,000 claiming tag. This wasn't a 9-year-old gelding we're talking about. So shoving Burna Dette off for a $2,000 race is either a terribly impatient maneuver or borderline sinister. The move just reeks as wrong.
O'Neill and Guiol, who had the mare less than a month before her Del Mar start, decided that racing for a $2,000 pricetag on a minor league circuit was the prudent next step. Sixteen days later, it was off to Los Al.
If you're new to racing you should know that when a horse is entered in a claiming race, and someone opts to purchase the horse out of that race, he or she becomes the possession of the new owner/trainer the moment the horse leaves the starting gate. If you have a horse who is damaged goods, they become someone else's problem.
And that's what happened with Burna Dette, who was sent away as the odds-on favorite in her final race when she was claimed by trainer Vod Farris on behalf of owner Thomas Granstrom. Farris and Granstrom lost the $2,000 on the claim and Burna Dette lost her life.
O'Neill and Guiol cannot possibly defend the move on the grounds that they wanted to keep the mare and win the purse, which they circulated to the Paulick Report. O'Neill has run six horses at Los Alamitos over the past several years in total, and five of those were claimed for prices between $2,000 and $3,200. In fact, on the same weekend Burna Dette suffered her life-ending injuries, O'Neill's barn unloaded claimers Back Nine Doc and Taxi Fleet over the next two evenings.
In what might be even more outraging is that Friday night's disaster didn't deter the risk of a repeat catastrophe. Neither Back Nine Doc nor Taxi Fleet suffered any known injuries, thankfully. This is not to say every horse raced is an accident waiting to happen, but rather an exercise in common sense to step away from an explosive situation. Why put your reputation at risk for $2,000 claimers?
Cheaper horses run at racetracks all over America, and certainly horses with infirmities race even on the biggest circuits. The old adage around the racetrack goes like this: There are sound horses and then there is "racing sound." So any of us who enjoy horse racing and make a living around the game have to deal with some of that guilt.
I was one of the first people in the national racing media to interview Doug O'Neill, way back in 2002 as our ESPN production team prepared for the Hollywood Gold Cup telecast. He was as engaging then as he is now. I was fascinated by his story of hard work and how he would take care of his barn in the morning and then go lay telephone lines all day as a second job trying to make ends meet.
But no matter how great he is to deal with, and he has been nothing short of a media darling, O'Neill has been down this troubled road before as a convicted offender of California's milkshaking rules. He also caught the ire of some racing fans by attempting to force-feed Square Eddie and his recovering cannon bone fracture into the 2009 Kentucky Derby picture before bowing out just prior to entries.
O'Neill also was the trainer of $5.2 million earner Lava Man, who was brought back out of retirement in the name of "science" and stem cell research, but retired again after one failed attempt on the track and a slew of hate mail messages to the barn. O'Neill recently was suspended for the end of the Hollywood Park meeting after a medication infraction from April's Illinois Derby was honored by California.
Surely we've all heard numerous times in our lives that "being a nice guy will only get you so far." Doug O'Neill is pushing the limits of that right now. If he wants to continue his rise as one of America's great trainers, he must vow to never again run a questionable horse for $2,000 and put his career, and the reputations of everyone he works with and around, at risk. The next questionable horse that breaks down won't just make Doug O'Neill look bad, it will make us all who love the game look like ruthless humans driven only by money.
You can't be a Breeders' Cup winner and leading trainer at Hollywood Park and Del Mar and be a bottom-feeder, too. Pick one or the other, Doug, and then everyone will be able to draw their conclusions as to what they want to ignore, and upon whom they want to heap praise and attention.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com. You can e-mail Jeremy at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.