Triple Crown contender I’ll Have Another is headed to new digs, along with his potential 10 rivals in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
They will take up residence no later than noon Wednesday in a special barn where every move and visitor will be closely monitored, a change in routine that has angered some trainers. New York racing officials mandated the move as part of new rules to ensure that the race is run fairly.
Like a real prison, the so-called detention barn has bare bulbs illuminating every stall, and visitors have to be logged in and out. Instead of being spread out in barns around Belmont Park, all Belmont runners will be sequestered in stalls next to each other.
Track workers were busy fixing up Barn 2 on Monday for the incoming residents. The trainer and his horses who had occupied the barn were moved elsewhere to make room.
The stalls were pressure washed, then given a fresh coat of yellow paint with a layer of finely ground dark stone spread on the cement floor to ensure even footing. Straw bedding would be put down later. Outside, a worker ignored the rain and brushed dark green paint on the aging barn.
Trainer Doug O’Neill, who is facing a 45-day suspension in July, planned to move I’ll Have Another into the special barn on Tuesday but delayed it a day. Since he arrived from Baltimore two weeks ago, the colt has been staying in a stall borrowed from another trainer, Mark Hennig, since O’Neill is based in California.
O’Neill was busy with off-track functions and decided to wait until Wednesday after the colt completes his usual morning gallop around the track.
”I want to be here when that happens,” he said. ”After he trains, he’ll cool out over there to make the noon deadline.”
O’Neill accepts the new rules, although he’s not thrilled about having to uproot I’ll Have Another so soon before he tries to become the first horse since 1978 to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
”The obvious negative thing is a lot of horses do get distracted when they change stalls,” he said Monday. ”It sounds silly, but it happens.”
Michael Matz, who trains Union Rags, and Dale Romans, who oversees Dullahan, don’t like being forced to sequester their horses on short notice.
”Do they make this stuff up as they go along?” Matz wondered last week when the new rules were announced.
Added Jim Barnes, assistant to trainer Bob Baffert, ”It’s not what we’d want to do.”
Romans was blunt, wondering who would be on the hook if his horse fails a test.
”Them, for guarding my horse, or now am I still responsible for everything?” he said before answering his own question. ”I’d still be responsible, but still don’t have any control.”
The scrutiny on O’Neill has been intense since the California Horse Racing Board last week announced his suspension and a $15,000 fine in the aftermath of one of his horses testing positive for an elevated total carbon dioxide level nearly two years ago. He has had other similar violations over the years.
Adding to the charged atmosphere is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s takeover of the troubled New York Racing Association, which has gone through bankruptcy proceedings and a state bailout in recent years.
While New York officials didn’t single him out in changing the rules, O’Neill knows their move hasn’t made him popular with his fellow trainers.
”I’m sure Matz and Romans probably want to kill me, but I think it’s a good thing,” he said about the detention barn, which was abandoned at Belmont in 2010.
”I like the thought of showing the general public that all the horses are in the same locker room, they’re all being looked after real thoroughly, just the transparency that our game probably lacks is key.”
Not every horse reacts the same way to changes in their routines, whether it involves location, feeding or care.
”When horses are moving in there, sure, it’s going to be a little anxious,” said Barnes, who is overseeing Baffert’s Belmont horse, Paynter, until the Hall of Fame trainer arrives Wednesday. ”There will be horses hollering, but they should all settle in pretty good I would imagine.”
O’Neill hopes his colt will take the move in stride.
”Fortunately, I’ll Have Another has a good disposition that I don’t think it will be distracting to him, but you never know,” he said.
Along with the horses go equipment, feed and hay, making the move more labor intensive than simply walking the horses to their new stalls. Upon arrival, they will each have a blood test to be reviewed that night by a drug lab.
Everyone associated with the horses, including trainers, assistants, veterinarians, grooms, hot walkers and owners, will have to pass through 24-hour security. Vets have to give advance written notice of any planned treatments.
”This way, you’ve got everyone in an isolated setting,” O’Neill said. ”Hopefully, none of the horses get distracted and they all settle in good and they all present themselves well. At the end of the day, people can say, `Wow, they were all looked after and they all ran great.’ ”