Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
- The Preakness Stakes hold a special place in my heart.
- Back in 2001, while rehabbing with Triple-A Las Vegas, I placed the largest wager of my horse racing career on Point Given to win the Preakness.
- Even though Point Given had me feeling as if I couldn’t lose, the size of the wager had me worried — plus I was running late for my ballgame.
On May 19, 2001, I placed the biggest bet of my life. It was Preakness Day and I was in Las Vegas. What could go wrong?
Why was I in Sin City in the middle of baseball season? Well, I missed 31 of the first 44 days that season thanks to a hamstring injury I picked up in San Francisco, followed by an oblique injury in Cincinnati. It was unfortunate because I was off to a rocket start, but the injuries slowed me down.
I finally got healthy, and the Dodgers sent me for a three-game rehab assignment. I was expected to join the team in Colorado the following Monday. Usually rehab assignments aren’t much fun, but this one was fine because, well, it was in Vegas.
This was the first year the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate was in Vegas. I spent parts of three seasons with their old farm team in Albuquerque, so I was ecstatic to get there and get some … at-bats.
The plan for me was to catch two games and serve as DH in another one for the 51s. It was perfect. I’d catch Friday, DH Saturday and catch Sunday. That was ideal because it meant I could get to the ballpark a little bit later on Saturday — the day of the Preakness Stakes.
Most minor-league coaches and managers really don’t care much about the big league guys who come down to rehab. They let them do their thing as long as you provide a nice spread for the guys after the game.
Checking In At The Hard Rock
The team hotel was downtown, but most organizations let you decide if you want to stay somewhere else. I had a hookup at the Hard Rock Hotel at the time, so I decided to stay there.
On the first rehab day, I put in some plays for Black-Eyed Susan Day (the Friday before the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course) and went to the ballpark. Remember, this is 2001, so there’s no way to watch or track the undercard races on a phone. Plus, my real focus was getting back to the big leagues, so I got to the park with enough time to receive treatment.
After catching five innings Friday, I got back to the hotel and put my tickets in the machine. I won $2,500. I had caught a decent pick-3 with Two Item Limit — the winner of the Black-Eyed Susan.
Draw A Line Through It
I already knew who I wanted to play Saturday. There wasn’t a doubt who the best 3-year-old was coming into the 2001 Kentucky Derby. It was Bob Baffert’s horse Point Given.
He had won the Santa Anita Derby easily and just had an enormous presence about him. Going into the Derby there was a ton of speed signed up, and it played out that way. Songandaprayer set the record for the fastest quarter-mile in Derby history, and Point Given and his rider, Gary Stevens, were right up there with the pace. Baffert said the horse was a bit of a mess before the Derby, and even though he trained OK, Point Given still ran off in the race. Yet, he still finished fifth. The winner, Monarchos, ran the second-fastest Derby behind Secretariat. Stevens took responsibility for the disappointing finish and said the horse never took to the Churchill Downs track. As a handicapper, I’m never afraid to draw a line through a start — in any sport. It was an outlier.
Taking Out A Marker
I knew Gary and Bob would make the right adjustments, and I also knew Point Given was an absolute freak. I went downstairs and started going through the undercard races. I didn’t really like anything at all. I liked one horse the whole day — Point Given. I took the $3,000 I had in my pocket and just decided, to hell with it, I’d put it all on Point Given to win.
I remember the boss behind the counter started to chuckle. I turned and asked him what was so funny, and he said he never understood why people play horses. I told him it was my passion and reminded him, politely, that if you pick the winner it’s still the best odds in gambling. He reiterated his point.
The dude was kind of being a bit of a know-it-all. You’d think he would ask why I liked the horse, especially because of the size of the bet. I could tell he knew who I was because the guy next to him had been asking baseball questions. So I called my casino host and asked to take out a marker.
He said sure. Almost all casinos want you to play the tables, but I wanted to play Point Given. So I went to the window and got my $10,000 in chips and messed around on the tables for a few minutes to please the hotel.
After that I went back to the window, got cash and put $7,000 more on Point Given to win. Now the guy who was laughing at me before wouldn’t take my bet. I kept reminding him that it’s parimutuel so it wouldn’t put the Hard Rock under. Next thing I know, all these people start to come over. Now I’m upset and starting to cause a scene. I told them I can go to a racetrack and bet $10,000 on a horse, so why not here? They would have let me roll the dice with those chips, that’s for sure.
The main floor manager is now here and told me they normally don’t do this, but that they’d take the bet. I remember actually rolling my eyes. He acted as if he was doing me a big favor. That pissed me off even more. This is not “Goodfellas,” this is a horse race. I still had more than $3,000 on me, so I had my buddy go bet Point Given throughout the day. Just another way to tell these guys to shove it.
I now had more than $13,000 on Point Given to win.
I’m Going To Be Late
By the time I got back to my hotel room, a little bit of trepidation began to kick in. I started to think, “Wow, what did I just do?” I went off the rails. I was superconfident that the horse was going to win, but I started to feel anxious. I’m not really thinking about my game tonight now. It was a rehab start, and I was the designated hitter.
I wanted to stay at the hotel to watch, but it was way too close to the game’s start and I needed treatment. So I called pitching coach Dean Treanor to let him know I’d be a little late but would be there for the start of the game. Family issues. I always used that one, and nobody would ever question me. Dean and I were really close, so I knew he would cover for me anyway.
I decided to stay. The minutes began to feel like hours. I was supposed to be at the ballpark, but I had 13 large to win on an animal and the guy behind the counter is staring me down — either because he despised me or because he was a Giants fan.
They finally got to the gate, and my heart started to beat out of my chest. The first thing I noticed after the race started was that Congaree — who ran very well in the Derby — stumbled at the start. Then I looked for Monarchos. He was dead last and wasn’t taking to the track.
Point Given, meanwhile, was wide and being ridden like he couldn’t lose. I knew around the first turn I was a winner. I remember walking to the window before the race was over.
Point Given paid $6.60 to win that day, so now I was waiting for my $40,000 in cash.
I called my casino host in front of the sportsbook guy and told him to put the cash in a lockbox in the cage and I’ll get it after my game. I hung up the phone and told the guy at the counter, “that’s why I bet on horses,” and tossed him a couple thousand, because I never would have bet that much if he didn’t laugh at me.
After the race Stevens said, “I can’t understand or explain what happened at Churchill Downs, but the horse I rode today didn’t show up at Churchill. As we went down the backstretch today, I was sitting on a mountain.”
I sat on a mountain of cash that day and made it to the ballpark with time to spare. Sort of.