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Cold cash a bonus for hot trainer

At a little past 5 a.m. Monday, Doug O’Neill, trainer of the almost-wonderhorse I’ll Have Another, along with Santa Anita Park CEO Mark Verge and a couple of their horse racing pals made a stretch run for Primm. It seems O’Neill’s good-luck charm – a winning betting slip on I’ll Have Another worth $20,000 – was burning a hole in his pocket.

As Fast Eddie Felson said, money won is twice as sweet as money earned.

Plus, as is clearly stated on the wagering board at Lucky’s Race and Sports Book at Primm Valley, winning race tickets must be cashed at place of purchase during regulation hours of operation.

It was 9 a.m., a regulation hour of operation. But only by a nose. Every restaurant in the casino was closed, and the Pancake House still was under construction. And Mark Verge was hungry.

It was so quiet that we listened for vacuum cleaners.

O’Neill could have brought along I’ll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez for a morning workout around the blackjack tables and roulette wheels and nobody would have noticed.

They probably would have gone unnoticed on Feb. 2, too.

On the eve of the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, O’Neill heard the sports books in Primm were giving 200-1 odds on I’ll Have Another to win the Kentucky Derby. So he scraped together and Verge sent another horse racing pal named Chuck Navarro to make the wager, which he did at Primm Valley’s sister property, Buffalo Bill’s.

Nobody knows for sure if Navarro rode the roller coaster. But apparently he also got down a sawbuck or two on I’ll Have Another to win the Robert Lewis at 43-1. Which he did, by 2¾ lengths.

The chestnut horse won the Santa Anita Derby, too. And then he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. And he probably would have won the Belmont Stakes, to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, had he not been diagnosed with tendinitis.

It was O’Neill who scratched him from the race and from the history books – and trimmed the handle of the local race and sports books for the Belmont by about 50 percent.

That was a bummer, but then O’Neill tapped his pocket, where he had been carrying around a $20,000 insurance policy folded twice into a neat square. And then it was a little less of a bummer.

“We had always been real excited about this colt, and we heard that the hotel here had him at 200-1 and Mark said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘We gotta support him,’ ” O’Neill said.

“We were extremely fortunate this colt was able to achieve what he did. He’s always been so talented. We were just fortunate, up until the Belmont, that he was able to stay injury free and then progress the way he did.”

After O’Neill finished telling three local reporters that he always reads their stuff when he’s in town – morning line on this being true: 500-1 – he unfolded the little square he had been carrying in his pocket and took it to the window.

“One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred …”

Don Demeglio kept counting $100 bills until he reached $5,000. He did this three more times, placing four red rubber bands around each stack of Doug O’Neill’s $100 bills.

Demeglio said O’Neill seemed pretty friendly for being somebody famous. When asked if celebrities came there often to bet the ponies, he said no, only Paul Rodriguez, aka Pablo; aka Don’t Ask for Autographs When I’m Playing the Ponies.

I saw an older couple ask O’Neill for his autograph, and he complied, and said he’d see them at Del Mar, where the turf meets the surf. Then Dan Shapiro, the director of marketing for Lucky’s, asked O’Neill to sign the winning ticket and who he liked in the third race at Mountaineer Park.

I suggested O’Neill visit the blackjack tables and the roulette wheels on the way out, because our economy could use a little boost. Or perhaps he might parlay the $20,000 on the Cubs to win the World Series at a bazillion-to-1, because our economy could use a lot of boost.

But Mark Verge said he still was hungry. And on the way out, when I spotted Doug O’Neill and his horse racing pals, they were talking amongst themselves, trying to figure out how many furlongs it was to the Denny’s at Buffalo Bill’s.  

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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