Racing is in their blood – Pasadena Star News
Track fever hit O’Neill, Verge a long time ago
Long before there was I’ll Have Another’s win in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Doug O’Neill (pictured), and long before there was a gig as CEO of Santa Anita Park for Mark Verge there was a March 22, 1981, trip to the Arcadia track for the last race of the day. The crew: O’Neill, then 12 years old; Verge, then 13, and their grade-school basketball coach, Mike Amodei. The means to get from Santa Monica, where O’Neill and Verge lived, was Amodei’s old, beat-up, green Toyota Corolla.
“I had told them that I loved going to the track,” Amodei said. “Especially in high school at Temple City, we’d cut out after lunch and go place bets (at Santa Anita).
“I was telling those guys about it and that I would one day take them to the track. So one day, that’s what finally happened.”
So there they were, O’Neill, Verge and their basketball coach dashing across town to make the bet and subsequent score that would help set in motion two racetrack careers that will go down in history.
When Crimson Commander crossed the wire first with Joe Blot a head back in second, O’Neill and Verge won $60 apiece for their $5 investment.
The race? Nothing more than a $32,000 claimer run at 6 1/2 furlongs with a purse of $20,000.
“I gave coach Mike five bucks and Doug gave him five bucks, and we had Joe Blot/ Crimson Commander and Crimson Commander/Joe Blot, and it hit,” Verge said. “We got $60 each and we were just rolling. I remember Doug and I had three 20′s each. We were set.
“It was the most fun I had in my entire life.”
Added O’Neill about the double-digit score: “It was a Derby-like moment. It was like `Oh my God, we just got rich!”‘
The win spawned a love fest with the track O’Neill and Verge still have to this day.
Following their windfall, the urge to get back to the track was so strong that relying on Amodei’s Corolla or O’Neill’s father, Patrick, for rides soon wasn’t enough. The duo took to the city’s bus system.
O’Neill estimated it took three buses and about 90 minutes to get from Santa Monica to Santa Anita. Hollywood Park was a tad easier, two buses and about an hour. But just getting to the track guaranteed nothing.
The under-aged boys needed fake dads to get them under the turnstiles at the admission gates and even more help to actually get their bets down.
Verge, whose smooth-talking skills still are very much on display today, handled that without fail.
“Mark would always ask somebody in the parking lot `Could you be our parent so we can get in?”‘ O’Neill said. “And then once you get in there, you just go up to a stranger, befriend them and say `Hey uh, my parents … are … I’m not sure where they are … uh, but can you get me $5 on the two?’
“And then you’d get that speech like, `You kids shouldn’t be betting … but why do you like the two? Did you hear anything about the two?”‘
Rides back to Santa Monica on the bus often were entertaining, especially after Verge gave many of the regulars nicknames and struck up friendships.
O’Neill recalls one such regular named Frank, who stood up about 45 minutes into the ride home from the track and let out an expletive.
When asked why he was so upset, Frank answered by saying he had forgotten he drove to the track that day and that his car still was in the parking lot while he was on the bus headed home.
There was no doubt which way O’Neill’s life was headed after the pair graduated from St. Monica High. He was offered a job walking hots for former trainer Jude Feld at Del Mar just months after graduation and eventually rode the backstretch ladder up to where he is today – a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer.
For Verge, entrepreneurism was his calling. After graduating from UCLA, Verge started a series of successful business, including WestsideRentals.com.
Verge also owns horses O’Neill trains and has parlayed his involvement in the industry into becoming Santa Anita’s new CEO in March.
But in true O’Neill/Verge fashion, neither friend can forget those who played important roles in their journey. That’s why Amodei, now executive editor for Ave Maria Press at the University of Notre Dame, and his two children were front and center last weekend for the Kentucky Derby.
Upon arriving at Churchill Downs, Verge greeted Amodei and his children at the gate and got them in. From there, O’Neill joined up with them and they hung out in an air-conditioned area near a snack bar until O’Neill needed to disengage so he could saddle I’ll Have Another.
“Doug was with us basically from about 11 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m. and we all just hung there,” Amodei said. “It was a great day at that point, no matter what the outcome. Then, everyone went their different ways. Mark got us a box. Doug went somewhere else. And then the race unfolds.
“As that horse came down the stretch, I kept feeling that this was really a flashback because Doug and Mark have always had something in them where they were just winners. They never changed. Either one of them. They were winners. It was one of the top-10 moments in my life.”