Belmont, darkly: I’ll Have Another runs for the Triple Crown as Andrew Cuomo cracks the whip

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Flat Out at Belmont. (NYRA, via flickr)
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“Luck," a recent HBO series that some boosters and railbirds had hoped would revive interest in the sport, instead became a public-relations disaster and was quickly canceled.

The David Milch-Michael Mann show was a gloomy, and accurate, portrayal of life at the track and the pitfalls of gambling. But its unceremonious real-life demise (after three horses died during the filming of its first and only season) was the most telling statement it could have made about the grim state of the horse racing industry. 

Here in New York, where the world's best horses are currently gathered for this weekend's races at Belmont, things have soured for the New York Racing Association, the group that has run the state’s three thoroughbred racetracks (Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga) since 1955.

In a devastating report, the state’s Racing and Wagering Board found that NYRA had been taking more money than it was supposed to from some bettors, cheating them roughly out of $8.5 million in winnings over a 15-month period.

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NYRA has been under fire for decades, but the report prompted the group to serve up its C.E.O. Charles Hayward (and his $475,000 annual salary) and another executive as sacrificial lambs. NYRA's attempts to replace them were blasted by the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said the group didn't have the proper authority to just replace Hayward with someone new.

As the NYRA drama was unfolding, The New York Times was bashing the horse-racing industry like a giant piñata. In a devastating series of articles, Joe Drape and other reporters revealed that horses were getting injured at a high rate while some trainers were illegally drugging them and barely getting punished for repeat offenses, even after they were caught red-handed.

The articles also determined that tracks located at "racinos"—the operations that include a casino whose profits help subsidize the track—had a higher rate of injury because owners and trainers were sending out horses in quest of purses that were often worth more than the horses themselves. Racinos were becoming deadly and Aqueduct was evidence of that: Ten horses died on the track over the winter, the first year that the Resorts World Casino was in operation at the track.

While the Times series exploded, and NYRA was imploding, a positive storyline seemed to emerge, thanks to a horse named I'll Have Another.  

At the Kentucky Derby, the three-year-old colt surprised many fans by running down another horse, Bodemeister, in the final furlong of the race. Bettors still weren't convinced, but two weeks later at the Preakness in Pimlico, Bodemeister was the favorite and, again, was caught by I'll Have Another, this time in an even tighter finish. This set up I'll Have Another to run for the elusive Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

But who is this horse and its affable trainer, Doug O'Neill? While I'll Have Another has always had a clean bill of health, its trainer has earned the unfortunate nickname "Drug" O'Neill for repeatedly violating medication regulations set by state racing boards. (By the Associated Press' count, O'Neill has 17 violations since 1997.)  

California racing officials decided last month to suspend O'Neill for 45 days for a violation, a sentence to be served after the Belmont Stakes. 

Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas groused about all of the negative attention that O'Neill was getting, telling reporters at Pimlico:  "As a trainer, at this stage of my career, I am embarrassed by all this stuff. I wish we could get more positive publicity for the sport, but we have to deal with these things, they're right there in front of us ... I'm not the savior of this game, but I'd like to proudly go to a cocktail party and say I'm a horse trainer."

One of the grand dames of racing, 90-year-old Penny Chenery, also took swipes at O'Neill and I'll Have Another's owner, J. Paul Reddam. In an interview with the Atlantic Monthly, Chenery, who owned the legendary Secretariat, let loose on the storm of bad publicity: "I think it is regrettable. And it isn't the horse's fault and this is probably a very good horse. I don't know Mr. Reddam personally but I think he should be embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record."

Reddam himself has not been exempt from the  bad news. Reports have focused on CashCall, his company that makes high-interest loans to high-risk investors and then pursues the borrowers with a vengeance if they're late with a payment. CashCall, according to a report by Bloomberg Businessweek, has faced or is currently facing legal trouble in several states, including California, West Virginia, and Maryland.

I'll Have Another's improbable victories have created the possibility of America witnessing the first Triple Crown winner (the crowning would be at the Belmont on Long Island) since 1978. But a victory by the horse on Saturday would draw even more scrutiny of NYRA and the troubled industry. [See update.]

This has prompted Cuomo to make several major moves. He essentially took over NYRA, establishing a board that will be dominated by his appointees and the state legislature. Trying to avoid criticism that he's making a power grab, Cuomo announced that the takeover will last no longer than three years. As for the integrity of the race itself, Cuomo's Racing and Wagering Board last week ordered the creation of a single "Belmont Barn,"where the dozen entrants in the Belmont Stakes are all stabled. Anyone entering the barn and all treatment of the horses is being monitored by racing officials and security personnel. Blood has been drawn from the horses to test them for illegal substances.

The arrangement is making many trainers grumble, some loudly. Speaking to reporters on Thursday at Belmont, Dale Romans let it rip: "I think this causes poor perceptions and it makes people think even worse of the game when, really, this is a very clean sport. … There's enough regular checks and balances put into place to make sure it's an ever playing field, and this whole thing isn't really necessary."

It will be interesting to see whether the governor attends the Belmont Stakes and whether he'll award the silver Tiffany trophy to the winner. With all that's happened this year, it may just the sort of media opportunity that an image-conscious politician with presidential aspirations can't afford not to miss.

Bob Hardt is political director at NY1 News and writes about racing for Capital.

UPDATE: It gets worse: O'Neill said this morning that I'll Have Another isn't going to run.