[UPDATE---Just after posting this, word came that I'll Have Another will not race tomorrow due to a developing injury. There will be a press conference at 1pm Eastern time. Complicated, complicated . . . . Prayers for all.]
“Around the turn and into the stretch . . .”
According to family lore, that was the first coherent string of words I put together as I toddled around after my father, a man who played the ponies with a fervor so dedicated that the first condolence call we got after his death was from his bookie. (His bookie was also his barber, which explained why long after Dad went bald he still “went for a trim” a couple of days a week.) The bugler’s call to the post, the nasal tones of the track announcer coming over my father’s homemade crystal radio, the terminology of the Racing Form—these were the soundtrack of my childhood.
As a teenager and young adult, I spent every New Year’s Day with my family in the Clubhouse at that jewel of racetracks, Santa Anita. I bought my first 45 rpm single (that’s the vinyl version of a 99-cent iTunes download, for you young-uns), Love’s “Orange Skies,” with winnings from a bet placed for me on one of those New Year’s mornings. Years later, our parents long having rounded the far turn and headed for home, my sister and brother-in-law still come down the hill from Pasadena on the occasional weekday morning to grab breakfast at Clocker’s Corner and watch the workouts, the glistening horses streaking by in the foreground, the snowtopped San Gabriels stretched out behind them like a movie backdrop. Santa Anita is one of the places I miss most here in Ohio, where racing is mostly of the harness variety and a great deal seedier.
I still follow racing’s televised big days—the Breeder’s Cup, the Triple Crown races—but I am conscious that there are, from many people’s reasoned perspectives, big ethical problems with the sport. Racing, even under the best of conditions, puts horrific strain on the bodies of Thoroughbred horses; imagine weighing a ton and running a mile and a half on what are essentially four very long second toes. On top of that are practices that come under the general term “doping,” essentially abusing horses to enhance performance or to mask the bleeding lungs that result when a horse is pushed past its endurance. Jockeys have their own set of abusive habits meant to keep their weight down. And then there’s the gambling—addictive, mostly illegal, and a draw for organized crime. So it’s hard to justify the appeal, or to explain that in spite of everything that’s wrong with horseracing I still believe that if I get to heaven it will look like Santa Anita. Mea culpa, but there it is.
This year, racing suddenly has a family connection of sorts again. I’ll Have Another, the horse with a chance to become only the 12th Triple Crown winner in history if he wins tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes, is a Santa Anita horse. The horse’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, is a friend of a friend of mine, Michael Amodei, a former colleague at Benziger who is now an editorial director at Notre Dame’s Ave Maria Press. Mike was Doug O’Neill’s middle school basketball coach and O’Neill’s wife’s 8th grade math teacher at St Monica’s in Santa Monica. Mike and Doug stayed friendly over the years, and it was Coach Mike who first took a teenage Doug to Santa Anita and later got him a job there. Doug calls Mike a second father, and is in turn a kind of extra dad to Mike’s teenage son James. James has autism, and one of the things he has fastened on with the passionate enthusiasm such kids have is horseracing. Doug gives a shoutout to James with every win. In May, at the Kentucky Derby, Mike and James stood with the O’Neills in the Winner’s Circle. They stood there again when I’ll Have Another won the Preakness Stakes. And they’ll be on hand tomorrow in New York, looking to be part of history.
It’s a great human interest story, but like all human stories short of heaven it’s complicated. Doug O’Neill is under investigation for doping his horses, and has drawn the ire of the Humane Society and the investigative journalism of the New York Times. Doug denies the charges—which are common in the cutthroat competitive world of racing—and says he has paid fines in earlier cases because it’s too expensive and time-consuming to defend himself in court. He will serve a suspension after tomorrow’s race, win or lose.
Mike says, “If Doug says he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.” My instinct would be to believe him, because although I don’t know Doug I do know Mike. He’s one of the most faithful, honest, principled guys I know, a mensch of a Catholic man, a terrific husband and father and a loyal friend. One of my favorite memories of Mike is from 1987, when as a member of the bishops’ Communications Committee I was able to snag tickets for myself and a number of family members and friends to attend Pope John Paul’s address to the Hollywood community on evangelization in the media. At the end of the address, Mike hurdled 20 rows of folding chairs and elbowed his way through a scrum of Catholic celebrities like a Notre Dame QB headed for the goal line in the last seconds of a USC game. He was able to reach the Holy Father, and got a handshake and an “I will pray for you, my son.” Touchdown! It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d expect would make a twenty-something California cool dude glow from head to toe, but Mike was a man who’d seen the beatific vision.
I know Mike’s virtue is no guarantee of Doug’s, though Mike has had a big influence in shaping the man Doug came to be. But for a lot of reasons—the memory of my dad, my friendship with Mike, Doug’s bond with James, the pride of Santa Anita—I will be praying for a win tomorrow for I’ll Have Another, and even more for a win for Doug in clearing his name. Dad will be praying from that Clocker’s Corner in the sky. And I can’t help but think Blessed John Paul II will be keeping his promise to Mike, and praying too.
For more on the complicated story of Doug O’Neill, see this post from the Baltimore Sun.