05/24/2012 12:59PM

Q&A: Dennis O'Neill of Team I'll Have Another

Barbara D. Livingston

Older brother of Doug O’Neill, who trains Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another. He works closely with the stable and selected I’ll Have Another as a $35,000 2-year-old sales purchase for owner J. Paul Reddam.

Age: 49

Family: Married, two children

Residence: Monrovia, Calif.

How long have you been involved in your brother’s operation? Since the start. Before he was training, I was into horses. I was 18 or 19 when I got started with it. When I was in my mid-20s, we had a ranch out in Temecula, me and my brother Danny. [Danny O’Neill died in 1998.] We bred some horses out there. I had a TV monitor in the bedroom. I’d go out and foal the mares in the middle of the night.

How’d you afford to get into horses? Did you have a “real” job, too? I did. I was working for GTE as construction supervisor. I worked for them for 18 years. But I was always interested in horses, and Danny and I just got hooked.

How would you describe your role in Doug’s operation, then? Probably as chief scout. I work with Doug on the babies, the 2-year-olds, and the training, but I like to work the 2-year-old sales and find prospects. You’ve got to come with great athletes. I do a lot of the buying and selling. I don’t get too much into the claiming thing.

What sales do you attend? I go to all the Barretts sales, the Ocala Breeders’ Sales, sometimes Keeneland or down to Miami. If they want me to go somewhere, I’ll go there. The best horses I’ve bought are Liquidity, Notional, and Stevie Wonderboy.

You’re not out there spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on horses, right? Don’t you have a fairly limited budget? We don’t go to six figures very often. Paul [Reddam] is not a dummy. He knows what the horses should go for, and we stop on a lot of horses we like. If they’re not in our budget, we stop. I’ll Have Another, I would have gone up to $80,000 with him.

Are there horses you really liked that you missed out on at sales and who turned out to be runners? I was all over Big Brown. I was a little sketchy on his breeding, but I really liked his breeze at the sale. I think he went for $200,000, and I remember thinking if I could get this horse for $125,000, I’d do it. He was gorgeous.

So what are you looking for when you’re scouting 2-year-olds? I’m generally going off the breeze. It was that way with I’ll Have Another. The stride he has now is the stride he had then. It’s just translated from of an eighth of a mile to much farther. That’s my job – to try and project what they’re going look like running farther.

With I’ll Have Another, I always thought as the distances went on he’d be a better horse. When he won first time out at the 5 1/2 [furlongs], I didn’t think he had that kind of speed, and that’s when I got really excited that he might be a really, really good horse. Doug kept saying, “This is going to be a really, really good horse.” We just kept waiting for him to get to be 3, when we could stretch him out.

The thing is, he just has such a great mind. More than anything else, that’s what came out the last two races. Nothing whatsoever bothered him, made him turn a hair. That’s the kind of thing that makes a great horse, and that’s what separates this horse.

You had cancer a few years ago. Are you in good health now? Pretty good. I have to go in every three months, and I take a lot of medications. My oncologist, I can tell she’s still concerned, and I have to stay on top of it. Cancer’s a thing that if you catch it early you can beat it. I went through chemo for four or five months, and that was tough, but once I got through that, it’s been pretty clear sailing with a couple of blips along the way.

Where’d you watch the Derby? I watched the Derby up in the grandstand with all the people. I was three rows below Paul and my family. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. That’s the most exciting day of my life. My wife gets upset when I tell her that, but I’m sorry, it’s true. At the sixteenth pole everything kind of slowed down for me. I can’t really explain the joy and the feeling that comes over you. At first I was thinking, yeah, this is pretty cool! We’re going to run second in the Kentucky Derby. Then all of a sudden I was thinking, hey, we’re going to win the Kentucky Derby!
Everyone wanted to do a lot of hugging and high-fiving. I went sprinting down the stairs to find my horse.