Behind O'Neill's smiles is a deep sadness - NBC Sports

Behind O'Neill's smiles is a deep sadness
I'll Have Another trainer lost brother to cancer 14 years ago
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I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill will try to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown on Saturday.
June 7, 2012, 3:06 pm

Doug O'Neill, who trains Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another, and his brother Dennis, his top assistant who made the buy of a lifetime when he purchased the colt for $35,000, are loving the moment as Saturday's Belmont Stakes and their shot at history nears.

They joke around and laugh often, no matter how the pressure builds.

As J. Paul Reddam, owner of I'll Have Another, has said of the seamless operation, "The Doug O'Neil team is a lot of fun. The whole group tries to remember that racing is supposed to be fun first."

Behind the easy banter, beneath the smiles, there is a tremendous sense of loss that will never leave them. Their brother Danny, who died at 38 of melanoma in 1998, has missed such a magnificent ride. He left behind an 18-month-old daughter.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about Danny," Doug said.

Danny lives on in the mind's eye of Dennis as well. "I know he's somewhere up there, going nuts," he said.

Doug was always there to help him through. Despite overseeing approximately 100 horses at that time, he always seemed to be at Dennis' side, reading to him from the Daily Racing Form in an effort to keep his mind off chemotherapy, to keep the fear away.

"It kind of calmed him down," Doug said, "and it calmed me down."

Dennis, who has been pronounced cancer free but is thought to be at a high risk of a recurrence, battled with his emotions as much as the disease itself.

"My theory going in was that anything other than being dead, I wasn't going to get upset about," he said. "I was very sick at the end, but this makes it all worthwhile."

His advice to cancer patients?

"Just to fight. You've just got to keep fighting. I definitely did that with Doug by my side through the whole thing."

Danny fought, too. But his prognosis was too grim. His skin cancer was too aggressive and too advanced.

"It was absolutely devastating," Doug remembered. "Of the four [O'Neill] boys [Dave lives in Honolulu and is not in the racing industry], he was always the biggest and strongest. To see him deteriorate the way he did, it's hard to put into words what that is like."

Dennis recalled Danny's fascination with bloodlines. "He loved horses. He was a breeding guru," he said.

Perhaps Danny would have seen the same potential in the son of Flower Alley as Dennis did. Who knows?

The brothers find consolation in their staggering loss. If I'll Have Another charges into history, they feel certain that Danny will be "somewhere up there, going nuts."

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