Horse trainer Doug O’Neill
is on the ride of
his life. It began at the track as a boy watching his father make bets
and then progressed steadily from the sport’s lowest jobs to its
penultimate perch, one race away from immortality as the trainer of the
first Triple Crown winner in 35 years. Two weeks before that final leg –
The Belmont Stakes – some in the media began to refer to him as “Drug
O’Neill,” a reference to cheating he denies vehemently and others say is
unfair. As he tries again this year to win the Kentucky Derby – the
first leg of the Triple Crown – O’Neill talks at length to
correspondent Armen Keteyian
about the accusations for a profile piece during the next edition of 60 MINUTES SPORTS
Wednesday, May 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on SHOWTIME
The “Drug O’Neill” name irks him but he can still joke about it.
“That’s why I kick my mom for not naming me Gene, so I could be ‘clean
Gene,” he tells Keteyian. He says most respect him and have
acknowledged his success, though the few that question him still hurt.
“Through the whole Triple Crown campaign…For every 10 pats on the back, I
probably got two kicks in the nuts.”
O’Neill denies to Keteyian that he has ever given his horses
performance enhancing drugs. Though, like many trainers, his record
contains some flags, none of them point to deliberate cheating says Andrew Beyer, racing writer for the Washington Post.
“I know what cheating looks like…I’m the world’s most suspicious
guy…you know, I saw no evidence anywhere that in recent years, Doug
O’Neill had done anything that produced results that you would say that
this has to be illicit,” says Beyer.
Stories questioning O’Neill and drugs began in earnest a few weeks
before the Belmont Stakes last year. Then, when his horse, “I’ll Have
Another,” was retired right before the race due to a hole in a tendon
revealed by a vet’s scan, the charges hit a high. Some wondered if he
scratched the horse out of fear he would test positive for drugs, a sin
so large at the brink of the highest achievement in racing that it would
mar him for life.
Some believe O’Neill, who comes from the city and a blue-collar
background, has been stigmatized by this lack of pedigree in a
blue-blood sport. Says racing historian, “The minute somebody is really
successful in the business, he’s going to become a target,” he tells
William Nack Keteyian, saying jealousy could be one cause. But
another can lurk below the surface, too. “There’s a kind of caste system
in racing…Doug is down there in the lower caste…But he’s a slumdog
millionaire,” says Nack.
Keteyian also speaks to O’Neill’s mother, Dixie, his brother Dennis and
childhood friend, Mark Verge, to round out this profile of thoroughbred
racing’s most visible trainer.