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O'Neill Takes the Bad With the Good

Dennis, the trainer's brother, is buoyed by Kentucky Derby talk as he battles cancer.

January 15, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Some thought there was too much talk of the first Saturday in May for a mostly misty January day at Santa Anita.

But a roadmap to May is exactly what Dennis O'Neill needs.

"I have good days and bad days," the brother of trainer Doug O'Neill said as he played with his 2-year-old son, Shane, on the grass near the paddock Saturday before Kentucky Derby hopeful Stevie Wonderboy ran in the $150,000 San Rafael Stakes.

The bad days are from the chemotherapy Dennis began three weeks ago after learning in December he has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The good days?

All the rest.

"Talk about a reason to live," Dennis said. "I have a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old I can't wait to see every day. Shane, and Stevie Wonderboy."

Dennis was one of the first to really see something in Stevie Wonderboy, the Kentucky-bred chestnut he picked out for entertainer and entrepreneur Merv Griffin at a Fasig-Tipton sale in Florida last year.

"Realistically, that's the most confident I've ever felt about a horse," said Dennis, who has been helping Doug buy horses for owners and themselves for about five years.

If he and Doug felt any less confident after Stevie Wonderboy finished second in a four-horse field on a fast track Saturday when he was unable to overcome Brother Derek's early lead despite closing down the stretch, they didn't say so.

"My horse ran a good race," Doug said. "You don't want to peak too early in the year."

Dennis called the race "a good steppingstone."

"The whole goal is the Kentucky Derby," he said.

Should Stevie Wonderboy make it to Louisville, the horse's name and connections could make him a sentimental favorite, beginning with the celebrity appeal of the 80-year-old Griffin, who waved to the track bugler when the bugler broke into the unmistakable theme from "Jeopardy" as Griffin, the show's creator, passed before the race.

Then there are the O'Neill brothers.

Eight years ago, they lost their older brother Danny to melanoma.

Last fall, when Stevie Wonderboy won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Danny was especially on their minds.

"Me and Doug were crying," Dennis said. "It was always the three of us and the horses."

Then, on Dec. 2, Dennis learned he had cancer, too -- a different type, one thought to have more environmental causes than genetic ones.

One round of chemo is behind him. The second of six is scheduled for Tuesday at USC's Norris Cancer Center.

"The key to chemo is keeping going when you're down," Dennis said.

The horse, he said, will help. By Derby day, "I should be done, and everything should be OK."

The early plan is to race Stevie Wonderboy next in the Santa Catalina Stakes in March, and then the Santa Anita Derby in early April.

Reaching the Derby isn't a single-elimination contest, or even best of three, but a future that gradually unfolds, with setbacks and successes.

Good days and bad.

With his son nearby, Dennis smiled. "I told Merv, of all his accomplishments, if this horse keeps doing what it's doing, he'll cure cancer."

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