01/27/2015 12:06PM

NHC winner O'Neil basks in the spirit of competition

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Veteran handicapper John O'Neil wins the 16th National Handicapping Championship on Jan. 25 in Las Vegas.

John O’Neil, a small-business owner from Huntington Station, N.Y., became the 16th winner of the National Handicapping Championship on Sunday night at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. He got a check for $800,000 for his efforts.

O’Neil is a handicapping contest veteran. He has won numerous smaller tournaments back East, including three in a row at one point at Suffolk OTB and two at the Meadowlands. This was the fifth time he’d qualified for the NHC – his best previous finish was in 2011 when he ended up 16th.

“That was the beginning of my learning experience,” the 74-year old O’Neil said. “One year I finished with zero. You have to be clicking over the course of three days to get there.”

O’Neil finished the first day of the contest in great position – he was sitting in 11th with $92.40. On the second day, O’Neil and Ken Jordan became locked in a duel, trading the lead several times in the handicapping contest equivalent of the 1989 Preakness. O’Neil came to the final table just under $7 shy of Ken Jordan’s leading total.

That’s where O’Neil made the decisive move. In the seven mandatory races that made up the Final Table, O’Neil cashed in four of them. Three of them were winners – Huntstown ($6.40) in Tampa Bay Down’s 10th race, Main Man Mike ($14.40) in Gulfstream Park’s 11th race, and Aperfectdaytofly ($7.40) in Santa Anita’s seventh race.

“I very rarely play short-priced horses,” O’Neil said, “But at the Final Table, a couple of the horses that I liked were 5-2 and 3-1. I took them anyway because I thought they’d win.”

Jordan went the other direction early on at the Final Table, playing longer shots and looking to spurt away from the field. In the end, O’Neil expanded to his lead to the point where he changed the whole dynamic at the Final Table – where there was a $250,000 prize for second, $125,000 for third, and $100,000 for fourth.

“The other guys at the Final Table in those second, third, and fourth spots were in a position where they had to think about protecting themselves,” O’Neil said. “I felt pretty good about it. Some players were taking shots but with bad horses.”

As soon as the picks were announced for the final race, O’Neil was the winner – there was no way he could be caught.

“So many great handicappers were in this contest,” he said. “I felt them breathing down my neck.”

There was a great scene – that may well become an annual tradition – after O’Neil descended from the stage, with many past NHC winners coming up to greet him and welcome him to their exclusive club, among them Jose Arias, Michael Beychok, John Conte, and Stanley Bavlish.

“I’m just so honored to be a part of this,” O’Neil said with emotion. “Everybody was so gracious. I was overwhelmed by it and still am. To get that kind of response from such great handicappers and nice people.”

O’Neil was encouraged by the number of younger players competing at NHC 16.

"After the tournament, I was speaking to some of the young guys, and one of them said, ‘I'll have to come back next year to beat you.' I loved his attitude. One of the things that's great about these tournaments is the spirit of competition.”

A very friendly but naturally introverted guy, O'Neil seemed a little wary of some of the responsibilities he'll face this year, having to give speeches at the Eclipse Awards and next year's NHC.

"That's not me at all," O’Neil said. "But I'll do it because it's for such a great cause – the horseplayer."

The first track O’Neil ever went to was the long-defunct Jamaica Race Course in Queens in the 1950s.

“It was a time where there were no OTBs,” he said. “You either had to go to the track or bet with a bookmaker. We went one day, and I got interested in racing. The information was hard to come by.”

Information is the key to O’Neil’s approach to handicapping these days.

“I can’t do what I used to do, which is to look at every race, every horse, by hand,” O’Neil said. “Software helps to save time. I use it to crunch the speed numbers.”

Like all the best handicappers, O’Neil is looking for horses that won’t be obvious to everyone.

“I look for angles that will bring a horse up to a race,” he said. “Preferably with a bad-looking race or races in his past performances but with a real good shot today.”

With the help of the computer, O’Neil is able to cover a lot more ground than he used to.

“Some guys look at two or three tracks because that’s what works for them,” he said. “I like to peruse everything. These bombs can come out of any track, any distance, any surface. I try to keep an open mind and follow my instincts.”