Dennis O'Neill seemed numb while floating toward the winner's circle. I'll Have Another, the chestnut colt he picked out of a 2-year-old sale for $35,000, had just won the Kentucky Derby, and the assistant trainer's mind was swamped by a tsunami of emotions.
"This is surreal,'' O'Neill said in a monotone. "This is the greatest day of my life. They say your wedding, a kid being born. This is better. Sorry.''
Most people would consider his priorities out of whack, especially if they knew about his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that's been in remission for about four years. But think about it: Most people get married, most of them have children, and hardly anybody wins the Derby. For racetrack people, that's No. 1 on the bucket list, and when it happens, it's overpowering.
Minutes later, O'Neill regained some perspective. "Yeah, I've been through a lot,'' he said of his life-threatening illness and his older brother Dan's death at 38 from skin cancer. "So I guess that makes me appreciate it a little more; makes you appreciate your family.
"I never in a million years thought we could do this. [Bob] Baffert always told us if you ever win the Derby, there's nothing like it. And boy, was that true.''
Suddenly, America wants to get to know Dennis' younger brother, trainer Doug O'Neill; owner Paul Reddam, and jockey Mario Gutierrez. "They're treating us like celebrities,'' Doug O'Neill said Thursday. "And until they figure out that we're not, we're going to enjoy it. It's been very cool to be part of a great story line and expose people to seeing how great this game is.''
Besides the endless interviews, there are public appearances. Gutierrez threw the ceremonial first ball Wednesday at Dodger Stadium (decent form but very high and inside) in a blue jersey with "Santa Anita" on the front. The bearded, personable Doug O'Neill will test his arm Tuesday night before the Yankees-Orioles game in Baltimore. He said he's been "tossing around some bread rolls with the boys" to warm up. Reddam, who owns CashCall, a Southern California-based finance company, appeared Friday night on "CNBC Sports Biz: Game On.''
Reddam, a 56-year-old transplanted Canadian, taught philosophy at USC and Cal State-Los Angeles before getting into the mortgage business. In 1995, he founded Ditech.com, which he sold to General Motors four years later for a substantial sum. Megabucks make you comfortable; Derby glory makes your soul soar. "I don't know how at this point anything could be bigger than the Kentucky Derby,'' Reddam said after the race. "If you hear of something, let me know.''
The O'Neills and their entourage partied deep into the night Saturday on Churchill Downs' backstretch. A video captured Doug and his rowdy crew chanting "I'll have another!" and clearly they weren't just saluting their horse. One blissful man mugged for the camera with a long-stemmed rose between his teeth.
On Monday morning, I'll Have Another and the party moved to Baltimore, where Team O'Neill is renting a house, just as it did in Louisville. Besides the O'Neills, the group includes their exercise riders, grooms and hot walkers. "We've been having a fun time drinking a lot of adult beverages,'' Doug O'Neill said, "and reliving the first Saturday in May.''
By Wednesday, Gutierrez, a 25-year-old native of Mexico, was feeling worn down. Tuesday, he attended a Nuggets-Lakers playoff game at Staples Center and made the rounds with many Spanish-language television outlets. He's enjoying his new status, but the pace is even faster than the one that Derby runner-up Bodemeister set. "I'm a little bit tired,'' Gutierrez said Thursday on a conference call. "This is crazy, but I'm trying not to say no to anyone. It's been great exposure. I'm trying to enjoy it, but we still have a big race coming up.
"This has absolutely changed my life, but hopefully, everybody understands that racing is my career, and I want to be focused on the Preakness.''
If I'll Have Another loses Saturday, the media madness will end instantly. If he wins, Team O'Neill has no idea of what it will be in for. Not even the post-Derby fever compares with the national frenzy over a possible Triple Crown.