Kentucky Derby

Winning trainer: Hardships forged fun-loving spirit in Team O'Neill

Trainer Doug O'Neill kissed the trophy in the winners circle after I'll Have Another won the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Saturday May 5, 2012.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Trainer Doug O'Neill kissed the trophy in the winners circle after I'll Have Another won the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Saturday May 5, 2012. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Doug O'Neill is quick with a joke.

Ask the winning Kentucky Derby trainer what his best course was in school and he says: "I was good in physical education, you know PE."

He pauses before adding: "I just always tried to sit next to smart people."

J. Paul Reddam, the owner of O'Neill's horse, I'll Have Another, calls his trainer and his Team O'Neill (as it is phrased on all of the family's barns) "a lot of fun."

"There's a lot of laughs there," Reddam continues.

That's part of what separated Team O'Neill for Reddam, what made the owner who could have selected any trainer in the country keep working with Doug O'Neill and his group.

"They remember that racing is supposed to be fun first," Reddam continued.

Maybe they know that because there have been so many reasons not to laugh in their lives.

Maybe they embrace the fun and the laughter because there have been so many tears shed along the way outside their barns near Santa Anita Race Course.

Racing has been a source of joy for a family that experienced more than its share of unspeakable pain.

Dennis O'Neill, assistant trainer to his brother Doug, was in the doctor's office in 1998 when their older brother, Danny, learned that he had less than a year to live.

"The doctor was crying when we walked in," Dennis told the Bloodhorse five years ago. "That's never a good thing."

The younger O'Neill brothers watched Danny's body get ravaged by skin cancer for almost a year before he passed away at the age of 38.

It was only a few years later that they again would get another devastating cancer diagnosis, this time Dennis learned he had non-Hodgkins' lymphoma.

Dennis, who saw something special in I'll Have Another and purchased the colt for a mere $35,000, is now fully in remission, a fact that Doug states proudly and with the same wattage smile he showed after his horse crossed the finish line first.

"It's been in remission for three, four or five years," Doug said when asked about his brother's illness. "He's healthy and he's doing great."

It's the hardships, the pain, that have helped make this Derby winning moment so special.

Everything the brothers who make up Team O'Neill have experienced in the past decade made this victory in the first Saturday in May even sweeter.

"I've been through a lot," Dennis said, getting choked up on the press podium. "Going through what I went through makes me appreciate this a little bit more."

And he never would have gotten through it without his baby brother, Doug.

"He's the nicest, most caring person in the world," Dennis O'Neill said. "I never would have made it through what I went through without him.

"It's great to go through something like this with him and celebrate with him."

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