08/15/2016 12:31PM

Ramirez establishing his own identity

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Robert Ramirez of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., has experienced something that only 15 other people ever have: He has accepted an Eclipse Award to honor all horseplayers. Ramirez, 45, stood up for his friend John O’Neil this past January at Gulfstream to accept the honor O’Neil won for winning the 2015 National Handicapping Championship.

On Saturday, Ramirez was one of 10 players to win NHC seats at Monmouth, along with Larry Hall, Kevin Kreiser, Roger Hammer, Lawrence Bergen, Andrew Gredesky, Douglas Schenk, Joe Perry, Michael Rubin, and Frank Fosbre.

O’Neil and Ramirez first met doing heavy highway construction around a dozen years ago. Shortly thereafter O’Neil paved the way for Ramirez, who had no previous knowledge of racing, to become a horseplayer. “My wife was on a trip to Florida and I couldn’t go,” Ramirez said. “John was heading to a contest in Connecticut and said he’d pay my entry if I drove. After that I was hooked.”

Ramirez explained what an important person O’Neil has become in his life: “I don’t have a relationship to my father and he’s become a father figure for me. He’s done more for me and my family than words can ever express.”

As a result he felt a lot of pressure back in January. “I was so honored he asked me to accept the award on his behalf,” Ramirez said. “I was really nervous because I never really spoke in front of an audience before and I wanted to do a good job.”

O’Neil had sent him copious notes about people who needed thanking. Then he learned he’d have only 90 seconds out there. His tablemates assured them that the house lights would be down and he wouldn’t actually see the faces in the audience when it was time to talk. But when he walked out there he could see everyone plain as day. “I took a deep breath and got all the names in,” he said.

On Saturday, Ramirez and O’Neil shared a booth at Monmouth with their friend Mike Emanuele. Over breakfast, Ramirez mentioned to them that he was thinking of trying a different strategy: Instead of betting the minimum $20 a race to win, he’d use place bets or split-stake win-place bets for his minimums.

He got off to a good start, and he connected with Sportscaster at 5-1 in Saratoga’s fourth. Then he changed up his strategy again. He normally doesn’t like to bet favorites in his cash play – a lesson he learned from O’Neil – but he thought Saturday’s Monmouth card was an exception. “All day the speed was good so I decided to play some shorter prices who figured to be on the lead,” he said.

Late on, he bet $50 win-place on an even-money shot to move up from 22nd to 18th. He consulted with O’Neil, who was out of contention himself but happy to help: “You know what they say,” said O’Neil. “If you can’t finish first, push the guy in front of you.”

Ramirez was trying to calculate how much he’d need to definitely land in the top 10 and secure an NHC seat. He got nervous that a lot of players in front of him would land on the same horse and decided, after consulting with O’Neil, to bet his whole $471 bank on Way to the Bank, who projected to be the speed. Another lesson O’Neil has taught him over the years: “Don’t be afraid to go for it.”

After the filly wired them as planned, Ramirez had $1,036 and sat atop the standings. Way to the Bank, indeed.

Ramirez has had success before, qualifying for the NHC three times at Monmouth and once at the Race Palace in Plainview, N.Y. This is his first outright contest victory. He is still known by many as “John O’Neil’s buddy.” He joked about what might happen if he continues to build on his success. He quipped, “Soon they’ll be saying that John is my buddy.”