Reigning champ Ray Arsenault this Friday through Sunday will try to become the first two-time winner of the NTRA National Horseplayers Championship (NHC) presented by Racetrack Television Network, Stats Race Lens and Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas. Arsenault, who started playing handicapping tournaments in 2003 at Woodbine, was the convincing winner of last year's NHC, amassing a score of $407.70 over the three-day tournament from 53 mythical $2 win and place bets. After a slow start the first day, he took the lead by winning the Day 2 competition with four double-digit winners, including one that returned $100 (worth the maximum $64 for contest scoring), entering the Final Table as the leader and widening his advantage. Finishing second at $361.10 out of the record 654 entries was 2003 NHC winner Steve Wolfson Jr. , who posted the best finish ever for a former champion. The 65-year-old Arsenault, who is a transportation broker for freight shipping between Canada and the U.S., is from Thornhill, Ontario, near Toronto, and lives in Fort Lauderdale during the winter.
Arsenault talked with NHC publicist Jennie Rees Monday as he was preparing to start studying Friday's races.
How has winning the NHC changed things for you?
Some better things have happened. But my day-to-day routine and what I do has stayed the same. Money has never really affected me. I was lucky enough to hook up with my buddies Lorne Weiss and (fellow NHC qualifier) Allan Schaffer to work with Frank Stronach on a few things this year. One of them was the Pegasus World Cup Betting Championship. I said, “You have the biggest horse race anywhere now, $16 million race. Why don't you have the biggest contest?” Frank liked the idea. We brought in another fellow, Ross Gallo, after we had a couple of meetings with Frank. Ross actually had the idea years ago to have a contest that the players didn't fund the prize money. We wanted it funded by the track. Frank agreed with that. So everybody put up their money ($12,000 buy-in) and they played with it. There was no takeout to go toward the ($300,000) prize pool; he put it all up. Most places, you put up the bankroll and they take 25 percent or a third and put it into the prize pool. This one, it all went to your bankroll.
When did you meet with Frank Stronach?
Last March. Lorne and Allan went out to Santa Anita to play in the contest out there where they had people playing at Santa Anita and Gulfstream. While they were there they saw Frank, because his horse Shaman Ghost was running (in the Santa Anita Handicap), in the walking ring and talked to him. Lorne's family has been really close with Frank and his family over the years. The horse won and he asked Lorne if he wanted to fly back with him and Tim Ritvo on his private jet. Lorne said, “Sure, why not?” They talked about horse racing and how to better the game. Lorne said to Frank, “I know Ray Arsenault well. He just won the Handicapper of the Year. Maybe it would be good to use him to promote the game.” That's how they set up the meeting. And that's how the contest came about.
Do people listen to your opinions more now than a year ago?
No. They don't ask (laughs). Every handicapper thinks they know it all anyways. We do our thing. Some people in passing would say, “What do you think about this horse?” But most handicappers have their own opinion, which is great. That's why it's so good – we all have different opinions on different horses in every race.
Do you find people listen to your ideas, like handicapping contests, more? Has it given you more entree in the industry for people to listen?
You got me on that one.
Paul Matties (2016 winner) has said winning the NHC is beyond what you can imagine and makes you feel a responsibility to be an ambassador for the sport. Have you had the same sense?
Yeah, the winning was surreal, unbelievable, and the feeling. The whole year, it's been great. I've met a lot of new people — that's my favorite part of the game. And I was able to mentor a few people through the NTRA. They came up with a mentor program. So in a way I helped some newbies into the game, the contest game. That was good.
How has the NHC and awarding an Eclipse Award for Handicapper of the Year changed things for the horseplayer?
Oh, it's big. I think it's opened the sport up for us. Years ago they had contests, but they were low-key. I never really heard much about them. Then when they started the NHC (2000), it's growing leaps and bounds since then. The Eclipse Award is a great feeling. It was amazing to get up and talk in front of everybody. And to wear a tuxedo!
When was the last time you wore a tux?
At my wedding (to Shirley), I think. A long time ago, 38 years. Been awhile.
When that last race was going off last year, did you feel like the Eagles after Tom Brady's strip-sack?
Yep. As soon as I saw the odds board (knowing even longest shot on the board couldn't beat him), I raised my hands in the air and knew I had won. It was a big relief. Very stressful.
How do you describe the Final Table to someone who will never be there?
Amazing. It's just an amazing feeling being up there and having all your friends. I think half the room was cheering for me. I know half the room, probably. It was great. The year before I wanted it so bad. I was second (after the second day) and went from second to 26th. I felt real bad that I never got to the Final Table. I wanted the experience, to see what it was like. That's what we play for. Last year when I was leading after two days, I had a feeling that I was getting there. I wasn't going to be denied. And it worked out great. I got through the early part of the day (semifinals), and I was prepared big time for the final races they threw at us.
Last year I started real slow. I was 333rd after Day 1, and then I got hot as a pistol on Day 2. My goal, when I started moving up, was to win the daily so I could get my BCBC award (entry into the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge) . That was a big thrill getting that. Then Day 3 was the capper.
What is your handicapping philosophy? Do you use a lot of technology or are you old school?
Little bit of both. Actually I just came to the coffee shop (near his Fort Lauderdale condo), because this is where I do all my handicapping. Every day if I'm going to the track, I come here in the morning and do my day's work before I go. Today (Monday) I've got eight tracks in front of me for Friday, because that's what is out right now. So I printed out the past performances for Friday. I'll go through them today and tomorrow, because I don't think Saturday will come out until Wednesday, and unfortunately I'm on the plane Wednesday. And I also use Post Time Solution software packages Black Magic and ValueCapper. And I've used ValueCapper since 1996. But I go through the sheets and pick the horses and look at the software and see if it agrees.
Do you look at a lot of replays?
A little bit. As I'm going through, I'll see a race with a lot of horses that ran together last time. I want to see the race, if anybody got in trouble.
So you're now looking at Friday's racing. Are you looking for your optional races, or if they are mandatory?
I'll go through all eight tracks, race by race. I'll eliminate a bunch of races and keep open the ones I think have value. I have to guess which mandatories they throw at you. I kind of know they throw a couple from Santa Anita, couple from Gulfstream, one from Aqueduct… I'll look at all the races and I'll be prepared for Friday. If the 'pps' come out for Saturday before I leave Wednesday, I'll do that on the plane, five-hour flight.
When you were mentoring new players, do you have some quick-hits advice?
I try to give them my angles. We all have certain angles, so we look at each race and see if it jumps out at us. A lot of times the angles are really successful. My main thing is first time new surface or change: the horse has been running with everything the same and now they put blinkers on or geld him, dirt to turf or turf to dirt or stretching out. Surface change is the big one, I find.
Is your philosophy different if you go to the track for a regular day versus playing in a contest?
I probably bet the same way as I play in a contest. I won't bet a favorite out of my own pocket. Most contests I won't bet a favorite, unless it's a mandatory where I think he can't lose. But I'm always trying to beat the favorite. So I don't have a lot of winning days, but when I do, I do well. Because I'm playing long shots. And it's hard to get long shots.
If I like a horse in a contest, I'll bet him out of my own pocket. I probably don't bet a horse out of my pocket unless he's 4-1, 5-1 or higher. I say to myself somedays that I wish I bet the favorites. In the Pegasus contest I could have done real well if I bet the favorites. Instead I tried to beat them. I put them in exactas and multi-race wagers. But on a win bet, I don't usually bet them.
So how did you finish in the contest that you helped birth?
Nothing. I blew out. I had a couple of horses run big, ran second. If they had won, it would have turned the whole game around.
In eight prior attempts, the best you'd finished in the NHC until last year was 26th in 2016. Put in perspective how hard it is to win the darn thing.
It's really hard. You're going against 700 of the best handicappers out there. They all got there by being good one day or many days. So it's very tough. The stars have to align; the horses have to run for you.
Can you describe the camaraderie and the friendships, what makes the NHC special?
It's great. I go to a lot contests through the year because I like to travel. Over the years I've met all these great people. So being at the NHC, we're all there, or most of us. We have a great time. And we keep in touch all year-round. There's nothing better. The people are fantastic.
Knowing how daunting it is to win, how do you feel about your chances to repeat, to be the first two-time winner?
That would be great. I feel good. I've got to be prepared. That will be the whole key. If I can find time — Vegas is a tough place for me to really concentrate, because I don't sleep a lot there. I do get up and meet my buddy in the sports book around 4 o'clock and we do about four or five hours of studying. You can't walk in there and expect to do well without doing your homework. Unless you're very lucky.
People are so good, and they have so much (information) at their fingertips now. The stats, you used to have what the Racing Form gave you. Now you go online and you can pull up trainer stats with certain aged horses, fillies or colts. It's mind-boggling. I'm too old for that, but a lot of guys do that and are very successful. There are so many good players out there.
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