01/20/2016 10:49AM

Fornatale: After difficult year, O'Neil ready to defend NHC title


Last Saturday night, John O’Neil, the 2015 National Handicapping Championship winner, was given an Eclipse Award in absentia at Gulfstream Park. O’Neil’s good friend and protégé, Robert Ramirez, accepted the award on O’Neil’s behalf.

It’s been an up-and-down year for the champ, to say the least. A few months after winning $800,000 in Las Vegas, O’Neil, 75, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has undergone successful treatment but is still dealing with some of the side effects of treatment. While he sounds happy and robust on the phone, he thought it was important to rest up, with an eye toward defending his title at next week’s NHC. So, he sent his wife, Dorothy, and Ramirez to pick up the award in his stead.

“I wanted to give myself an extra few days just so I can concentrate a little bit better,” he said.

The award was presented by Daily Racing Form chairman and publisher Steven Crist. This was particularly appropriate because it was Crist who came up with the idea that a horseplayer should win an Eclipse Award. As he told Noel Michaels in “Handicapping Contest Handbook,” “To me, that’s the greatest thing about the NHC. Whoever wins it gets a trophy at the Eclipse Awards, and the industry will be saying something it needs to say more often: ‘You, the fan, are as important to this business as the owner, the breeder, the trainer, and the jockey.’ ”

Horseplayers couldn’t have a better representative than O’Neil, an avid fan of the game and of the younger generation of players in particular. O’Neil, a small-business owner in the construction industry from Huntington Station, N.Y., has known Ramirez, 44, for more than a decade.

“I broke him in dispatching at a major asphalt construction company on Long Island,” O’Neil said. “He’s a very bright, smart, hardworking guy.”

Under O’Neil’s influence, Ramirez became interested in racing a few years ago and qualified for the NHC last year. O’Neil thought he did well on stage in Florida.

“He was petrified at first,” said O’Neil, “but he had a couple vodka cranberries, so he was in good shape.”

While he was in Florida for the Eclipse Awards, Ramirez tried to qualify for the NHC in Gulfstream’s contest. He’ll head to Las Vegas a day early with O’Neil to give the last-chance contest at Treasure Island a shot.

A few weeks ago, O’Neil and Ramirez went to the Monmouth Park tournament with the idea of getting Ramirez qualified. O’Neil already had an automatic entry for winning last year’s NHC and wasn’t all that determined to get a second entry. “I thought I was better off sticking with one,” he said. After the success he had last year, who could blame him for feeling that way?

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As it turned out, O’Neil finished third, but since one of the players ahead of him was already double qualified, he got his second seat after all.

“I didn’t even know what had happened until a few days later, when I got a call from [the NTRA],” he said.

Upon reflection, O’Neil is happy to have the second seat. “I can wing that second one a little bit with some scare horses,” he said.

Prior to Monmouth, it hadn’t been a great year for O’Neil in handicapping terms, partly because of the pressure he put on himself after winning the richest and most prestigious handicapping tournament there is.

“Psychologically, it affected me when I wasn’t doing well,” O’Neil said. “When I finished poorly, it was a little frustrating coming off that pinnacle. But if you’re any kind of horseplayer, you know that you’re always going to face peaks and valleys like that. Slumps are common.”

Despite his cash windfall, O’Neil is working just as hard as ever. Between his health issues and his job, he knows he won’t be as prepared as some of his competition at the NHC. “I’m not going to be able to do the research that some players are,” he said, “but I’m of the belief that there can be too much information out there, and it can be confusing. I stick to the basics, and I’ll be prepared mentally – that’s the most important thing.”

A critical part of O’Neil’s winning routine last year was his NHC workout. He was in the gym at Treasure Island every morning, and you can expect to see him there once again.

“At 6 a.m. when they open, you’ll see me there on the treadmill,” he said. “That’s what drives the energy I need to get through a couple of days.”

O’Neil declined to make a specific prediction for next week but did cite a line from one of his Long Island OTB cohorts and fellow NHC champions, John Conte: “Anybody who wins the NHC twice should be put on Mount Rushmore because that’s how tough it seems going in. Anything can happen, and I always go with the thought that I’m going to do my best.”