Doug O’Neill is one of the more controversial trainers in horseracing today. While some question O’Neill’s training methods and his use of medications, there can be no denying his recent success. The trainer has won more than 2,000 races including a much-heralded run at the Triple Crown in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and a win in the 2016 Kentucky Derby with Nyquist.
O’Neill was born in Dearborn, Michigan in 1968. At age ten, the O’Neill family moved to California where young Doug often attended the races at Santa Anita Park with his father. This spawned his love of horseracing, and in high school he became a hotwalker who helped to cool horses out after a race or morning workout. This was followed by a stint at Del Mar racetrack, and in 1989 Doug O’Neill received his trainer’s license. Racing ran in the family, it seems. O’Neill’s brother Dennis became a bloodstock agent to help clients select horses for purchase at large auctions.
In just eleven years, O’Neill became a major player on the California racing circuit. His stable of horses grew to one of the largest in the United States and the largest in Southern California. The trainer accomplished his early success with modest horses, winning lower level claiming and allowance events. It wasn’t until 2002 that O’Neill saddled his first Grade 1 stakes winner, Sky Jack. The horse won the Hollywood Gold Cup at the now defunct Hollywood Park, and the race was the first time one of O’Neill’s horses had been entered in a Grade 1.
The most accomplished horse trainers in the business have one thing in common: at some point all of them found a benefactor in a horse owner that was willing to entrust the trainer with high quality horses. For O’Neill, that owner was J. Paul Reddam. A successful run with Lava Man, arguably the most successful claiming horse in the history of horseracing, precipitated O’Neill’s rise to the highest echelons of the sport. In 2007, the trainer saddled two horses in the Kentucky Derby. While neither Liquidity or Great Hunter was able to capture the roses that day, it would be just five more years before O’Neill found himself standing in the Churchill Downs Winner’s Circle with I’ll Have Another. While undoubtedly his greatest triumph, the success of I’ll Have Another would also cast aspersions on O’Neill’s integrity.
After his win in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another breezed through the Preakness Stakes and was shipped to New York in preparation for the Belmont Stakes and a chance at the Triple Crown. All was well, it seemed, until the day before the race. In the months leading up to the event, O’Neill had been handed a suspension for the use of illegal medications. Because his suspension was not scheduled to begin until after the Belmont Stakes, the New York Racing Commission was powerless to prevent O’Neill from running I’ll Have Another in the Belmont. New York has a strong reputation for zero tolerance when it comes to the use of prohibited medications, and the racing commission instituted the use of a detention barn for the 2012 Belmont. All horses entered in the race were to be placed in the detention barn three days before the race where they and their trainers would be under the constant supervision of commission officials, making it impossible for anyone to administer illegal medications.
Without any notice, O’Neill called a press conference for the morning before the Belmont Stakes. At the press conference he announced that I’ll Have Another would be scratched from the Belmont Stakes because of an injury to his tendon. The horse was brought out for the media to see and sported bandages which covered the injured tendon, making it impossible for anyone to directly observe the extent of the injury. There were immediate speculations that O’Neill had fabricated the injury story to save face because the New York Racing Commission had effectively prevented him from illegally medicating the horse.
In 2016, O’Neill removed Nyquist from Triple Crown contention after his win in the Kentucky Derby under similar pretenses, further igniting questions about his use of illegal medications. By October of 2014, O’Neill had amassed a total of 19 drug-related violations in various jurisdictions across the United States.
Despite the controversy, O’Neill continues to be a successful trainer on a national scale and a favorite of those who like EZ Horse Betting. He was named Trainer of the Year in 2002 by the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and continues to add to his win total.
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