MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There were big hopes this year of a Triple Crown winner when the thoroughbred I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Then the day before the Belmont Stakes, the colt was suddenly withdrawn from the race. His trainer, Doug O'Neill, chalked it up to a freakish injury. But an investigation by The New York Times shows that was not the case. Veterinary records show that I'll Have Another suffered from osteoarthritis for some time and was being treated with painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Reporter Joe Drape joins me to talk about what he found. Joe, welcome to the program.
JOE DRAPE: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
BLOCK: Why don't you go back to the explanation from the trainer, Doug O'Neill, last month about the freakish injury, and how that squares with what these records show?
DRAPE: Well, the sequence he described at the time is that he woke up on Friday, the day before the race, worked the colt out lightly, and discovered a little inflammation and some heat to his left front tendon, and what the records demonstrate is that he had chronic tendinitis. He had issues before that, that he arrived in New York and immediately got X-rayed three weeks prior to the race and they diagnosed osteoarthritis there. So basically, what the records show is that this horse had some wear and tear and was banged up and they were treating it and they were trying to get him to the Belmont Stakes.
BLOCK: They were giving pretty powerful drugs to get him to that race.
DRAPE: They - you know, two days before the race, they gave him two pretty powerful shots that intended to get him to the races. It wasn't until an ultrasound was done the following day at the request of the owner that they diagnosed that he did have this chronic tendonitis and it wasn't probably the right thing to do to run him.
BLOCK: When you confronted the trainer, Doug O'Neill, with these findings, what did he say?
DRAPE: He said the horse was perfectly sound and that he wasn't aware that he had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and he did not have any chronic conditions and, you know, he had iron legs and he was sound.
BLOCK: There's an interesting twist to the story. You had access to these horse records because the trainer, Doug O'Neill, has had repeated drug violations with horses. He faces a 40-day suspension in August. That's why you were able to access these records in the first place.
DRAPE: Yeah. The state of New York made Doug O'Neill agree to conditions of turning in his vet records daily as a requirement of licensing him here to run in the Belmont. You know, it was a rare glimpse that we usually don't get on vet records. In 2009, before the derby, I asked 20 owners for their vet records of all the horses that were running and only three would give them to me. Usually, these come out in lawsuits and, you know, they guard the vet records and the conditions of these horses before big races like they're state secrets. They don't want to let on if a colt is banged up a little bit.
You know, and especially in the Triple Crown races, this is three-year-old colts, which are the equivalents of adolescent boys. You know, they're 13 and 14. They're not fully formed and they've asked to do a lot. You know, it's three races, five weeks, three different distances. They've run three or four times to even get into the series, so you know, they're pushing these horses pretty hard at that time of year.
BLOCK: Why is this significant? What's the big implication here?
DRAPE: Well, what's significant is horseracing has a history of leaning hard on these horses and getting them to the races and, you know, nobody's really asked what's going on, how they get them there, what kind of medications they're given.
And, you know, America leads the world in catastrophic breakdowns. The New York Times had a series and we went out and documented 24 horses die a week at the racetrack. That's far more than Europe, Hong Kong, the rest of the world. So you look at what's the difference between us and them is we rely more on veterinarian and medications and we have more permissive rules with not very strict or stiff penalties.
BLOCK: You report that I'll Have Another was given drugs two days before the Belmont, painkillers and synthetic joint fluid, drugs that you say are not illegal. They're not uncommon in horseracing. Are there people who say they should be illegal, they should be made uncommon?
DRAPE: There's a great dialogue right now about how America medicates its horses. In Europe and the rest of the world, they aren't allowed to have these medications. We worked on a series for a year now and have run out several parts and what we have found is that trainers use these things to prop up a horse to get him to the races. Does it enhance their performance? Yeah. Because maybe they wouldn't make the races. And, you know, they mask the pain and that's where the danger and the abuse is.
BLOCK: I've been talking with Joe Drape, reporter with the New York Times. Joe, thanks so much.
DRAPE: Melissa, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.