The Buck Stoppage of Doug O’Neill

Trainer Doug O'Neill will serve a 10-day suspension at the hands of the CHRB as of yesterday. J.N. Campbell offers his commentary on the situation...
Trainer Doug O'Neill will serve a 10-day suspension at the hands of the CHRB as of yesterday. J.N. Campbell offers his commentary on the situation...

Harry Truman was initially one of our least known, yet became one of our most magnificent, American Presidents… in my humble opinion. I know what you’re thinking… highly subjective… an incredibly threadbare statement, especially to start a turf article. Who does he think he is making such a proclamation… Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Michael Beschloss, Jon Meachum?

No, decidedly not.

Just for the record, I was not unduly influenced by Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian, David McCullough’s landmark book on our 37th Prez, as I purport to have argued this point many times before the publication of Truman in 1992. The man from Independence, Missouri had all sorts of “famous” quotes associated with him, but none was more potent, nor more memorable than, “The Buck Stops Here!” He not only popularized the phrase, but it was one of the cornerstones of his political ideology.

The story goes that a friend of Truman’s, who was a U.S. Marshall, saw a placard on a prison warden’s desk, and liked it so much, that he asked, could one similar be made for the President? Interestingly enough, what you might not know, is that the phrase hails from poker.

Tradition tells of a “counter” of sorts that would keep track of whose turn it was to serve as the next dealer. In some cases, especially out West, a buckskin knife was used; hence, the action of “passing” that object to another player. Those in the game could refuse to serve in that role, and the game would move on. That warden loved his poker, and Truman loved the quote. And the rest is…   

This past weekend, which was precipitously over before we knew it, news was reported by several turfwriting outlets, following the lead of the LA Times, involving Doug O’Neill’s stable. As an extremely successful trainer based in Southern California, he was being punished by serving a minimum of 10 days and would be fined $7,500 for a medication violation that occurred on October 9, 2020 at Santa Anita. A 4-yr-old colt of his out of Secret Circle was the culprit. This O’Neill charge is named rather ungrammatically, Howbeit. He tested positive for the pain reliever, Lidocaine, after finishing second in a claiming race.

O’Neill entered into a settlement agreement with the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) in which he would have to serve only 10 days of a 30-day stretch, if he remains without any medication violations for a year. The suspension begins as of yesterday (Monday March 8th), and will run through March 17.

Of course, just like they do in the majority of these situations, criminal or otherwise, news outlets pounced on the opportunity to dredge up old O’Neill violations. This was expected. I think what was most interesting though about the story was O’Neill’s statement that he issued via Twitter, when he wrote…

“I take 100% responsibility for the miniscule (parts per trillion) amount of Lidocaine detected in one of my horses, post-race. As the trainer of the horse, the buck stops with me.”

Whether the CHRB made the proper decision or not, is beyond the scope here. I will leave that to the message boards. By quoting Truman, who in turn, co-opted a turn-of-phrase from a prison warden… O’Neill was harnessing a powerful notion about responsibility. In this situation, and in any further ones, the buck knife would not be passing to the next dealer or in this case someone within O’Neill’s organization. Instead, it would end with him.

What I find so intriguing about this situation is the "courage under fire" (to quote another President, JFK…), especially considering the ramifications of what this could do to the reputation of O’Neill’s stable. He was not just taking the sword in the name of honor, so to speak, for something that he was not directly involved in, but he was willing to receive the brunt of any further transgressions based on the deal that was struck with the CHRB.

That shows mettle in my estimation, since we know that there are only about a million things that can go wrong in the space of a year. With such an expansive operation as he commands, O’Neill cannot be in more than 1 place at a time. It is simply not feasible.

If he sends an entry to a NYRA track, to Oaklawn, or the Fair Grounds, he cannot be in control of any situation at all times. As this suspension has well-proved, and most in the industry well-know, it only takes a speck of Lidocaine to set off a test. We humans are covered in the stuff, and for O’Neill to make that kind of commitment to staying “clean,” is going to be exceedingly difficult.

But that is O’Neill, he understands that standing for something as difficult as this is, where it’s his name on the side of the barn, means everything. There is something rather refreshing about the fact that he harnessed Truman’s quote. There is no hiding, no chicanery, no “lawyering up,” no overt spin; rather he is the trainer, this is the punishment, and now it is time to serve it out.

While his 10-days off from racing unfolds, what many might not be thinking about is O’Neill’s financial loss… It is not just his pocketbook that will be assailed, but what about the staff in his office, in the barn, and the connections associated with these entries, that he would have most assuredly made? When O’Neill takes a suspension, they do as well. It is all a symbiotic relationship that can hit hard. O’Neill must be attentive to those needs too when something like this gets handed down.

In the end, the team took the loss, but Doug O’Neill… took the responsibility. For him, that’s where everything ends, and the buck, it stops with him. That is how it is going to be.

As for Truman, a President who knew firsthand about tough decisions… he would have been proud. 

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