BALTIMORE -- He's a first-generation horseman who started at the bottom, walking thoroughbreds as an 18-year-old who admittedly knew next to nothing about them. Doug O'Neill, 43, was a racing fan before he drifted into the sport as a career. He believes it should be fun, and so does older brother Dennis, his assistant trainer.
Now the brothers O'Neill are one victory away from a Triple Crown with I'll Have Another, a colt Dennis picked out of a 2-year-old sale for $35,000. If he wins June 9 in the Belmont Stakes, he might be worth $100 million to owner Paul Reddam.
Doug O'Neill felt anxiety and absolute joy at Pimlico during the riveting stretch run of yesterday's Preakness, when I'll Have Another ran down front-runner Bodemeister only three jumps from the wire. "I'm just numb,'' he said. "I could see him and I felt like he was coming, but you never want to expect that he's going to be in front. I saw him coming, and it seems like the stretch never ends. Thank God.''
Ever since O'Neill shipped I'll Have Another to Churchill Downs before the Derby, he and his team have been working hard while still enjoying the carnival. Reddam rented them a house in Louisville and set them up in Baltimore near the waterfront.
"We had a lot of fun there, about 12 of us, grooms and hot walkers and my brother, drinking adult beverages and savoring memories of the first Saturday in May,'' he said. Now they're bound for Long Island, where they'll toast I'll Have Another's triumph on the third Saturday in May. No one can say whether the horse can stay the 1½-mile marathon at Belmont Park, but Team O'Neill will maximize its fun to relieve the pressure.
Doug O'Neill's offbeat sense of humor surfaced after the race, when someone mentioned that his wife, Linette, is allergic to horses. "It's amazing,'' he said. "The large checks seem to keep her from itching and coughing.''
The O'Neills were one of the ancient clans of Ireland, and it is said that to be Irish is to know that this world is sure to break your heart. Doug and Dennis have been there, felt that. Fourteen years ago, they had to watch helplessly as their mentor and older brother, Dan, died of skin cancer at 38. When you've sobbed hard, you gain perspective.
Going for a Triple Crown can be excruciating pressure, or you can be thrilled and enjoy the ride. There isn't much doubt how the O'Neills are going to play it.
"I'm excited,'' Doug said. "I can't wait to get to New York.
"I'm surrounded by so many fun people. We work hard and take good care of the horses. We have a really good atmosphere at the barn. That helps keep everything very loose for me, the horses and the staff. Along the way, if we can share a little bit of the backstage fun of racing, and the excitement and the beauty of it, I would like to do that.''