11/02/2015 2:20PM

Fornatale: Massis finds inspiration from his uncle and Found


Tommy Massis is not a horseplayer. The 52-year old from Toronto, who just won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, identifies himself as a gambler. That idea has roots in his first trip to the track. “My uncle Chris brought me into this game. He took me to see Secretariat run at Woodbine,” he said. “The whole time I wanted to go home.”

But he still remembers who he bet on. “My uncle gave me two dollars to bet on local horse, Kennedy Road.”

Massis’s uncle, who passed away recently from cancer, was a critical figure in Massis’s life. In addition to introducing him to gambling and the track, the two men were very close. “We were birds of a feather,” he said. “We were both sarcastic jerks who could give it as good as we gave it. I still carry around a lighter he gave me that doesn’t even work.”

Based on the bold bets he’s made to win two of the last three Keeneland live-bankroll contests, it’s no wonder Massis’s nickname is Hammer. “That’s how he bets,” said longtime friend and fellow contest player Ray Arsenault. “He’s not afraid to fire.”

Being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian is a prerequisite for survival as a professional horseplayer. Massis takes this concept to the next level. No mere contrarian, he’s a rugged iconoclast. A few examples: 1) He’s a contest player who doesn’t have any interest in the National Handicapping Championship; 2) He’s an expert on Woodbine but loves “betting trainers and jockeys I have never heard of because you make more money on them”; 3) At Keeneland, he’s more apt to focus on horses 30-1 and up on the morning line because most people will eliminate them quickly and he can sometimes find things to like about them through his replay work.

Massis has a lot of gamble in him, but he’s also a studious handicapper who does the work and relies on clocking information. Those are two main reasons he’s effective in live-bankroll events. As a trip-oriented player, he’s able to focus on a small subset of races, as opposed most formats where one has to look at several tracks at once.

Another important aspect of Massis’s work is his ability to handicap other handicappers. In a recent interview with the racing website agameofskill.com, Massis said, “I read every track handicapper of every track that I play. I read every word that they write because they may tell you one tidbit of information that maybe you didn’t know. They could tell you something about the horse, any little bit of information, such as trouble, being on the wrong part of the track, etc. The information comes with the cost of the Form so why not read it?”

But his hallmark, as the nickname suggests, is his aggressive style. In four of the runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the winner has famously gone all-in on the last race. Massis has a different approach. “I hate playing the same way as everyone else,” he said. “If I only have one strong opinion, I’ll go all-in on the first race.”

This year’s BCBC didn’t call for that approach. Massis was looking to nurse his bankroll on day one because he had two very strong opinions on day two. Massis, clad in a green Tulane T-Shirt and sitting in the prestigious Green Room, had built his score to around $24,000, in striking distance of the leaders. He took half his bank and swung and missed in the Sprint, playing Wild Dude with Kobe’s Back in the underneath spot.

Then Massis had a major decision. He was sitting on $12,000, a significant amount of money to him. He placed a $3,000 exacta box with Golden Horn and Found. When he got back to his seat, he started thinking about what his bankroll would be if he hit and decided that it still might not be enough for him to win. He went back and upped the bet to a $4,000 box. “Back home I only have about $4,000 to my name,” Massis said.

Once Found and Golden Horn finished one-two, it became a waiting game. Massis tried to put the contest out of reach in the Classic, where he bet $1,000 and missed, but the wait wasn’t over there. Understandably, Tim Schram and the BCBC officials wanted to wait until all the information from Keeneland and the various simulcast sites was gathered and carefully vetted. Massis sat nervously in a chair for the better part of an hour, right in front of assistant contest director John Reynolds, who sat with Todd Sparks as they audited the results.

Massis became emotional as he waited. “People thought it was because of the money, but that wasn’t it,” he said, his voice breaking on the phone. “I was thinking about my uncle.”

Two of Massis’s pals, including Ray Arsenault, approached him worried that someone had passed him in the Classic, but Massis had just been tipped off that he’d won. He didn’t let his buddies in on the secret to mess with them. “It was good because I went from being emotional to holding in laughter,” he said.

The end results were a lot closer than many guessed they would be – David Kramer, playing alongside his friend Mark Haidar -- had just $2,600 on his bankroll heading into the last race.

Kramer wasn’t a fan of Effinex, but Haidar really liked the horse, and convinced his pal to use him. This decision proved fortuitous, as Kramer cut more than $69,000 out of the race between the trifecta and exacta pools. It’s plausible that if Kramer had even just $3,600 going into the Classic instead of $2,600 that he might have won the whole thing. It just goes to show how fascinating live-bankroll events can be – even with a short stack and a 3-5 favorite, you still have a real chance heading into the last race.

But in the end, the day belonged to Massis, who dedicated the win to the memory of his uncle. Asked if his uncle would be proud of him for winning more than $345,000, he said, “Nah, he’d probably tell me I’m just going to lose it all back anyway.”

The 2015 BCBC tells Massis’s story in a nutshell: a shrewd handicapper, a bold gambler, a dark sense of humor, and a heart of gold.