I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid threatens to cause a US hangover
Kentucky Derby winner lifts Preakness but trainer’s denials of ‘milkshaking’ other horses have yet to convince all in US racing
Saturday proved a significant day for racing on both sides of the Atlantic, as Frankel returned at Newbury and extended his unbeaten record to 10 races while at Pimlico in Maryland I’ll Have Another added the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the US Triple Crown, to his victory in the Kentucky Derby.
These two horses seem destined to define the racing seasons in Europe and America but the reaction to their successes says a great deal about the relative health of the sport in their respective spheres of influence.
Frankel’s five-length victory in the Lockinge Stakes was a cause for delight and relief, since a seasonal debut is never an easy race to negotiate, and attention now turns to Royal Ascot and beyond. The only potential cause for concern is whether the “Go Frankel!” banners and flags that proved so popular at Newbury will contravene the Royal meeting’s strict new dress code. The joy over I’ll Have Another’s victory, however, has been a little more qualified.
It is not that American sports fans are not eager to see another Triple Crown winner. It is now 34 years since Affirmed and Steve Cauthen completed the set in the Belmont Stakes and 11 horses have since taken the first two legs, only to fail the final test. Several of those were short-priced favourites to earn their place in racing history, the most recent being Big Brown, who was a 3-10 shot but was pulled up on the home turn.
There were about 100,000 spectators at Belmont Park that afternoon and there was no disguising both the eagerness of their desire to see racing history made and the bitter disappointment at yet another failure. One punter, who had backed the 39-1 winner Da’ Tara, had to cut short his celebrations when another racegoer attacked him. Let no one say that the Americans do not take the Triple Crown seriously.
The problem with I’ll Have Another, though, is his trainer. Doug O’Neill runs a very successful operation on the west coast but, when it comes to violations of US racing’s rules on medication, O’Neill’s rap sheet – as the New York Times pointed out shortly after the Derby – is long and inglorious. It includes more than a dozen breaches of the rules in four different states while he also faces suspension of his licence for up to six months after one of his horses, Argenta, showed a raised level of TCO2– the mark of a “milkshake”.
“Milkshaking” means forcing a bicarbonate solution into a horse’s stomach via a tube inserted into its nose, a procedure which is as crude and unpleasant as it sounds. The theory is that the alkaline solution counteracts the effects of lactic acid building up in a horse’s system when it exercises and thus delays fatigue. The practice is generally accepted to have been rife in US racing until quite recently, on the west coast in particular.
O’Neill says – indeed, he swears on his “children’s eyes” – that he has never milkshaked a horse and claims to be funding research into the possibility that legal raceday drugs, such as the anti-bleeding agent furosemide, might have caused the positive test. He is still fighting the Argenta case, nearly two years after the positive test.
I’ll Have Another’s attempt to become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown will be the focus of much attention in the United States over the next three weeks. What the sport’s more thoughtful participants and observers appreciate, though, is that a story which should be a reason to celebrate what is good in American racing is just as likely to advertise what is rotten.