06/28/2012 2:40PM

Tuley: O'Neill cashes his 200-1 Kentucky Derby future ticket

Dan Shapiro
Trainer Doug O’Neill bought this future wager ticket, getting 200-1 on I’ll Have Another, a day before he sent out the colt to win his 2012 debut in the Robert B. Lewis.

PRIMM, Nev. – Doug O’Neill has been the face of horse racing for the better part of two months.

I’ll Have Another’s Kentucky Derby win on the first Saturday in May put him in the spotlight and the trainer’s bearded visage was omnipresent through their Preakness victory and then the announcement a day before the Belmont that I’ll Have Another had tendonitis in his front left leg and would be retired, ending his Triple Crown bid. O’Neill has also been at the center of doping discussions and is scheduled to start a 45-day suspension on Sunday, July 1 (he has said he plans to appeal).

But he left all that behind at 5 a.m. Monday as he left Hollywood Park with Team O’Neill racing manager Steve Rothblum and Santa Anita’s CEO, Mark Verge. Their destination was the Primm Valley Resort and Casino in this town on the Nevada/California border. Primm is less than 40 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip on I-15 and the place where locals go when the Mega Millions jackpot gets out of control as lotteries are outlawed in Nevada but there’s a lotto store right over the state line. Primm is also the first place for Californians to find Kentucky Derby futures, as Lucky’s Race and Sports Books run the books here.

On this day, O’Neill was just a regular horseplayer all excited about cashing a Kentucky Derby future-book ticket. Okay, so he wasn’t a typical bettor, as he was holding the only 200-1 ticket on I’ll Have Another bought at the Buffalo Bill’s race book, but since he was clean-shaven, he could have walked in incognito if the three Vegas sports reporters waiting for him hadn’t been tipped off to his arrival. O’Neill’s $100 ticket was bought at 4:48 p.m. Pacific on Feb. 3, the day before I’ll Have Another made his 2012 debut in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

Verge, who hadn’t been named as Santa Anita CEO at that time but was a childhood friend of O’Neill’s, said he received a call from a mutual friend, Chuck Navarro, that week. “Chuck told me he was here and I’ll Have Another was 200-1,” Verge said. “I said ‘You’re kidding me’ and called Doug.”

“Mark said ‘what do you think?’ and I said ‘We gotta support him,’ ” O’Neill said. “He’s always been so talented, so we were optimistic and felt 200-1 was a fair price and very realistic.”

O’Neill and Verge said Navarro made the $100 wager for them. Lucky’s director of marketing, Dan Shapiro, who was also here to witness the ticket being cashed, said that was a limit wager and the only one made at that price, and the odds were dropped to 100-1. O’Neill and Verge said Navarro bet $50 for himself at 100-1 and made six bets in all. By the time he left, Lucky’s had lowered I’ll Have Another’s odds to 25-1, but that wasn’t enough to keep the book from having its first losing Derby futures in the company’s four years of existence, Shapiro said.

On Monday, O’Neill had to fill out a Currency Transaction Report, required for all casino transactions that exceed $10,000, and then was paid the $20,000 profit $100 at a time in four stacks of $5,000 each (plus his $100 bet back). O’Neill and Verge said they were going to spread the winnings around the stable since the colt’s success was a team effort.

Regardless, you know that bettor’s lament when he makes a big score and says, “Now I’m finally even”? or that he needs another one to get ahead? Well, O’Neill was definitely in horseplayer mode.

“I’ve been betting the Derby futures since I can remember, even before I should have been betting them,” said the 44-year-old. “I’ve never been able to cash until now. I’m sure I’ve lost more than this will cash. I usually bet two to three a year, it’s fun to follow their progress.”

O’Neill said he hasn’t bet his own horses in the futures since 2006 when he had the reigning 2-year-old champ, Stevie Wonderboy, and then in 2007 when he had Notional, Great Hunter, and Liquidity with only Great Hunter and Liquidity making the Derby starting gate.

But this year’s bet looked promising from the beginning, as I’ll Have Another won the Robert B. Lewis at odds of 43-1 and then went on to win the Santa Anita Derby. Still, he went off at 15-1 on Derby Day and O’Neill and Rothblum said they still have uncashed tickets from Churchill Downs.

The whirlwind tour after the Derby win also kept O’Neill from cashing his Nevada ticket, so he carried it, neatly folded in a square, as a good-luck charm in numerous shirt pockets. “I treated it like a baby, like it was my third child,” said the father of two.

The luck ran out before the Belmont, but O’Neill repeated what he said in his press conference to announce I’ll Have Another’s sudden retirement: “It was far from tragic,” he said Monday. “The highs were incredible and the lows weren’t that low. We’re grateful for the beautiful ride he gave us.”

O’Neill said he’s optimistic about his crop of 2-year-olds.

“We have 15 of them, the best crop we’ve ever had,” he said, mentioning three promising colts by name: Cinco de Mario (named after Derby-winning jockey Mario Gutierrez), Know More and the cheekily named He’s Had Enough. “Hopefully one of those will develop and give us another run at it.”

Spoken like a trainer – but also like a bettor who can’t wait for the 2013 Derby futures to be posted around Labor Day.