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TrackNotes: Stolen Seashells and Busted Balloons

UPDATE 11:49 A.M.: I'll Have Another, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner who was aiming to become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown, was scratched Friday from Saturday's Belmont Stakes because of a leg injury, the New York Times reports.

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Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist. - George Carlin

For any fan of Thoroughbred horse racing, and horseplayers too, Saturday will be the ultimate day. I'll Have Another has a tremendous opportunity to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed capped off the great 1970s with his epic Belmont Stakes victory over archrival Alydar.

And yet.

You rub off a little of the shine here and a some of the gloss there, and a Triple Crown winner Saturday will in no way provide that injection of interest racing so passively waits for. Just imagine how a Triple Crown winner would send racing right back into the mainstream of American sports, they say.

Without its house in order, racing will find that many newbies, potential fans, have peeked through the window during this bid for the crown and seen a mess they don't want to get involved in.

As always, it's the humans.

I'll Have Another's attempt will come exactly 34 years to the day since Affirmed's, making it the longest drought in Triple Crown history, nine years longer than the gap between Citation and Secretariat.

This horse is a horse, and it will be he and young jockey Mario Gutierrez who will deserve the true credit if they take the crown. In masterful rides beyond his years, the 25-year-old Veracruz, Mexico, native became one with I'll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, defeating a determined Bodemeister both times. Any ol' kind of a win Saturday, and I'll Have Another will have put together an impressive Triple Crown three-spot by any measure.

The son of one of my favorite horses, Flower Alley, I'll Have Another was famously purchased for only $35,000 at a 2010 yearling sale by owner J. Paul Reddam. And while this one is treading in fairy tale land, he wouldn't be considered an awesomely great horse unless somehow he keeps right on winning through Saratoga this summer, the Breeders' Cup and into a four-year-old campaign. But they'd still never be able to take that Crown away from him.

And we do hope he runs on past the Belmont, avoiding that all-too-typical detour to the breeding shed.

As a two-year-old, I'll Have Another was moving right along on the artificial in California before having trouble with the slop in the Hopeful at Saratoga. He bounced back in a big way to win the Robert Lewis in February and then the Santa Anita Derby. His next stop was Louisville to begin his current odyssey.

As great as horse and rider have been, the coin's other side shows connections who steal seashells and bust balloons.

At the top, it's simple. Canadian J. Paul Reddam, a one-time college professor who wanted more, parlayed the sale of his four-year-old DiTech Funding Corp. mortgage lending firm in 1999 to GMAC Mortgage Corp. into a fortune that allowed him to seriously get into the ponies.

Since founding Cash Call, Inc. in 2003, things just kept getting better for him on the track as he campaigned notables Wilko and Red Rocks to Breeders' Cup success.

I'll just say this: In some places they call his business juice. And there have been some complaints.

If Thoroughbred horse racing is the sport of kings, what is J. Paul Reddam the king of?

But it's in the day-to-day, as in horse training, where things really go awry.

Here you've got a horse who has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and instead of average Americans just curious of who this verge-of-history steed might be, his trainer, Doug O'Neill, less than a week after the Preakness, is suspended for 45 days and fined $15,000 by the California Horse Racing Board after inspectors found an elevated level of TCO2 (commonly administered in a concoction nicknamed a "milkshake") in a horse in an Aug. 25, 2010 race at Del Mar.

Of course, the penalty can't begin before July 1 and might be appealed anyway. That incident was just weeks after a similar one with Stephen's Got Hope that spring in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Illinois racing officials also fined and suspended O'Neill.

"While elevated carbon dioxide is associated with 'milkshaking,' the officer agreed with O'Neill that his horse Argenta had not been fed a mixture of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes that enhances performance and combats fatigue," AP reported. "The officer did not indicate what might have caused the overage."

So the CHRB found that the horse was not milkshaked but that because the level of TCO2 was still illegally high, O'Neill still had to be punished. This reeks of industry accommodation between all parties.

Forevermore, O'Neill will be able to say he didn't milkshake the horse at Del Mar!

And O'Neill did just that in an interview with NBC's Bob Costas earlier this week.

After Costas suggested that O'Neill has found a way to increase TCO2 levels without milkshaking, O'Neill blamed high dosing in the use of Lasix, a drug used on race day to alleviate respiratory bleeding in horses.

"Yeah, Bob, you're right. It definitely needs to be addressed, and one of the things we found out and we weren't told is that Lasix can affect a horse's TCO2 levels and prior to finding that out, we had all the horses at the highest level of permitted Lasix, and we found out that this is a serious issue. We're playing with fire by doing that. We have scaled back on the use of Lasix pre-race."

While O'Neill plays the victim and pleads ignorance, the point is his horses, including two others the day of the Del Mar allegation, often register the highest levels of TCO2.

In racing, O'Neill is not really considered a buffoon for doing these things all trainers do. Just for getting caught. After all, you still have to swim if you're in the cesspool.

But the book on O'Neill has another dark page. "Nationally, thoroughbred horses break down or show signs of injury at a rate of 5.1 per thousand starts, according to The Times's analysis of more than 150,000 races over the past three years," the New York Times reports. "In more than 2,300 starts, horses trained by O'Neill show a breakdown or injury frequency more than double that rate, at 12.0 per thousand starts."

And how do some react to O'Neill's record?

You have your conspiracy theorists: "[Longtime friend Mark] Verge said O'Neill had been the victim of his success and might have been sabotaged," the Times report says. "'People hate his guts because he wins.'"

Verge is also part-owner of the horses involved in both the Del Mar and Hawthorne soda jerking incidents. He's also the CEO of Santa Anita and apparently a real nice guy.

And you have your apologists: "No racing writer has been tougher on 2012 Kentucky Derby/Preakness-winning trainer Doug O'Neill in recent years than I have been over his medication violations and the catastrophic breakdowns of horses in his stable." says Ray Paulick of PaulickReport.com. "I would, however, be the ultimate hypocrite if I didn't believe O'Neill deserved a second chance or an opportunity to rehabilitate his image."

Admitting he's made some mistakes too, Paulick outlines his approach. "What I am saying is that I'm going to judge him on how he conducts his business in the future. Everyone deserves a second chance."

Second chance? How about eleventh or twelfth? O'Neill is nothing more than a recidivist, through every fault of his own and that of every state racing board and the industry as a whole. When is all this going to stop?

If you think O'Neill is being singled out and picked on, no. There is no better time than a Triple Crown attempt to understand that O'Neill and many, many more like him or worse are the norm in Thoroughbred racing. American racing is so drug-oriented that the concept of "We love these horses" might just be blowing out the window. No other racing environment in the world uses medication as the United States does, and O'Neill is the epitome of these practices.

And, without O'Neill bringing a fresh suspension and fine in his back pocket to Belmont on Saturday, you wouldn't hear a damn thing about these issues.

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And then you have the New York Racing Association, which has borrowed a page from the Rahminator's NATO how-to and will go draconian in advance, thank you, and quarantine three days out all the Belmont horses in a special barn that will be so secure that needles, pills and smoothies will be impossible to find.

Announced 11 days after the Preakness, the quarantine rules will mean that some of the horses, major creatures of habit, will have to repack their stuff and move to different rooms at the Horsey Hilton. Some horses won't arrive before Wednesday and will head straight for their stalls in quarantine, avoiding the inconvenience.

Also, I'll Have Another won't have the benefit of his nasal strips, illegal in New York.

See what I mean? National racing rules are so disparate that a horse could lose the Triple Crown because of a difference in regulations and the botched handling of arbitrary rules concocted by an inept bureaucracy.

Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey nutshells it:

"It would be comforting to think that this year it is no different, and that great care and consideration is taken every time a Triple Crown is on the line. No one mentioned that the welfare of the horses running in the Belmont Stakes was of particular concern."

And NYRA is engaging in even more ass-covering by instituting measures specific to O'Neill's horses during Belmont week.

"Among the requirements for O'Neill, according to a confidential e-mail obtained by The New York Times, are that his horses cannot in any way be treated 'without a board investigator present,' and that he should not allow treatment of any of his horses 'by mouth or in feed without conferring with a board investigator, who will first log the treatment and discuss the reason(s) for treatment.

"O'Neill must also provide veterinary records for I'll Have Another and any other horses he may be running over those days at Belmont 'no later than 10 a.m.' each day after any treatment."

Of all the sport's past mistakes, is this fair? Is O'Neill the lone black sheep in a trainers' group of angels?

Before Triple Crown momentum and hype could even get going, news outlets all over picked up the O'Neill suspension story. So you've got a real live Triple Crown in the offing and the sins of the game have unavoidably taken all the drama and the fun out of it.

After thinking long and hard about this, I'm finding it impossible to separate this Triple Crown quest from the actions of the many people who have brought us to this unique Belmont Stakes with these specific circumstances. It was the first damn thing I thought of after the thrilling finish of the Preakness. A loan shark and a cheater for connections.

And I don't want to hear from the "It's the Triple Crown, why do you have to be so negative?" crowd. This is the perfect opportunity to ponder these things. The situation demands it.

After this race ends and the turnstiles stop and betting handle goes low again and they wonder why I'll Have Another didn't "capture the nation's imagination," maybe the dazed powers of racing will understand.

And maybe listen to this lady.

"I think people like to believe that horse racing is fixed. I think there's a little something that's naughty, that if you know someone you can find out if the fix is in, and I don't think we should fall for that. Or let that image be true."

Indeed, don't let the image be true.

But I'll tell you what.

If I'll Have Another wins this race, let the carnation-carpeted son of Flower Alley and Arch's Gal Edith, and his young jockey Mario Gutierrez, stand abso-effing-lutely alone in the winner's circle. And let the waves of adulation wash over them.

They're the only two who will deserve it.

* * *

The twelfth in position to win since Affirmed, will I'll Have Another become the twelfth Triple Crown champion in U.S. racing history?

Right now, he's ahead of his classmates. But those were two tough wins in the Derby and Preakness and Gutierrez is an inexperienced jockey on a track than can eat them alive.

O'Neill says the horse has bounced back well after the first two jewels. He hasn't had any official works since Pimlico, but reportedly gallops in a spirited manner, so that's okay.

Although he's a versatile horse, able to lay off a harmfully fast pace or lead a sensible one, the Belmont is a race where he'll have to measure his effort evenly through every inch of the 12 furlongs. Will the lack of a breathing strip hurt his air intake and will he panic because of it? That's all up to him.

As for Gutierrez, although he will ride several races Friday and Saturday, he doesn't really know Belmont and he is a rookie on this stage. The number one question will be his appreciation, or lack thereof, for the long stretches Belmont presents. He'll need to be a young man with patience.

And will the other jocks make him "earn" it by complicating his trip, as Jerry Bailey and Alex Solis did to Stewart Elliott and Smarty Jones in 2004?

The 12-horse field could cause early traffic problems, but give the top horses a clean go at it, and I'll Have Another has everything it takes to win.

At 4-5 morning line or worse, there's no way I'll bet on him, so who's the upsetter?

The wise guys are saying Dullahan or Paynter.

Dullahan (5-1 morning line), who observers say looks great this week, is a half-brother to Derby shockmeister Mine That Bird. He shows closing ability as long as he's not too far behind, and that suits this race. Coming in fresh from a third in the Derby, trainer Dale Romans is obviously keying this race.

With his racing lines showing a lot of trip trouble, Romans is replacing Kent Desormeaux with J. J. Castellano on Saturday. That's a good move.

But Dullahan's only two wins have come on Keeneland's Poly Track surface and his other good efforts have come on turf. After the Derby, there were whispers about him being a turf horse at heart. Which is it? He has the paper pedigree for the distance, but will he be able to handle the Big Sandy in Elmont, N.Y. after limited dirt experience at Churchill Downs? Morning line is 5-1 and I'm not sure I'd take anything less.

Paynter (8-1 ML) is the horse trainer Bob Baffert, early on, said was the star of his barn. That was before Bodemeister.

In only his fifth career race, all in 2012, Paynter is the only horse in the field besides I'll Have Another to bring in a three-digit Beyer Speed Figure.

Unimpressive in two graded stakes, he ran a 106 Beyer on the Preakness undercard. Out of Awesome Again with Tiznow in the higher branches, Paynter should have the pedigree to go 12 furlongs.

Except for the speed figures, Paynter looks like an awfully young horse with potential and too little experience or foundation to run with some big boys in the frickin' Belmont Stakes. But he might be too young to know better, lope along with the rest and sneak up. At least that's what Baffert is hoping.

A real enigma is Union Rags (6-1 ML), the once highly touted colt who has struggled and has been written off by many. Considered one of the most physically talented three-year-olds running, he has yet to show the form or the potential of his rookie season last year.

But there's a trend here. Up and down the line you see bad trips. Julien Leparoux has had (caused?) some tough times on this horse, getting him in a whole mess of traffic trouble in the Florida and Kentucky Derbies. Kentucky? Understandable. Florida? Leparoux had an early stranglehold on the horse, although Rags finished quite well once in the open. Michael Matz has made the change to jockey John Velazquez, a Belmont veteran if ever there was one.

His distance pedigree seems a bit short, but this big colt, in a reasonable pace scenario without a hassle, could be coming down the stretch like the Wabash Cannonball. All the better if he stays at 6-1 or more.

The others? D'OH!

Street Life (12-1 ML) is the son of Street Sense, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes. Not too shabby. He has experience at Belmont and does have that 93 Beyer last out at third in the Peter Pan at Belmont. That was first blinkers, so you figure he's still learning. I'll have a few clams on him.

Five Sixteen (50-1 ML) is a pure price play. However . . . he's showing Beyer improvement (I know, I know, only 78) in his last two, which included his maiden win, has shown some good works and has the very capable Rosie Napravnik in the saddle. The son of Invasor, a world-class horse who won both the Dubai World Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic, he should have no problem getting the distance. If the race falls apart, who knows?

After these, you're on your own.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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