01/30/2017 9:09AM

Arsenault dominates in NHC 18 victory

Ray Arsenault, second from left, receives the big check from NTRA president Alex Waldrop after his NHC 18 victory.

Ray Arsenault has won the 2017 National Handicapping Championship at the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas after a three-day tour-de-force performance that netted him $800,000 and an Eclipse Award for Horseplayer of the Year.

The 64-year-old Thornhill, Ontario, resident did so well over the three days that there wasn’t much drama for the final race. “The fellow who was second played a horse who was 20-1 when he went into the gate, and I said, 'Oh no.' But then he drifted down to 19-1 and I knew I'd won.”

Arsenault came into Day 3 as a clear leader, meaning there was a target on his back through all 42 races on championship Sunday. “I was confident, but I felt pressure, for sure,” he explained. “You have to when you’re up against these guys here. If they find the bomb and I don’t, it’s a whole different game. I was lucky to keep my lead.”

Last year he was in a similar position at the start of day two but he went cold and ended up 26th overall, a disappointing finish. “I had it in the back of my mind what happened last year,” he said, “but I kept saying, ‘Forget it, don’t worry about it. Things will be good this year.’ And it worked out.”

Arsenault was also a minority partner in Tommy Massis’s 2015 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge ticket, making him the first player in handicapping contest history to taste both NHC and BCBC glory. He is the second Canadian to win the NHC. Brian Troop won it in 2010.

Many players concern themselves with strategy at every turn. Arsenault spent three days focused on doing what he does. “I played the same way I always play,” he said. “I rarely play a horse under 5-1 and I love playing bombs because the feeling of hitting a longshot is just great. Today I happened to hit quite a few.”

Arsenault held a single NHC entry, which he earned with a fourth-place finish at the Del Mar Handicapping Challenge in July. He has been a dedicated contest players since Woodbine started hosting NHC qualifiers around 2004. He made his first NHC appearance in 2005, finishing 29th back when prize money was only paid to the top 20.

“I had a great experience and knew this was where I wanted to come,” he said. “This is it. This is like the Super Bowl of horse racing.”

By virtue of his victory, Arsenault also automatically earns an exemption into next year’s NHC finals. That will be the eighth NHC appearance for Arsenault, a transportation broker who fell for racing as a child during Woodbine and Greenwood visits with his father.

“I cut my teeth when I could barely walk,” he said. “My dad would go to Greenwood all the time and I’d tag along. I’d look for programs on the ground so I could sell them to the guys coming in for the last two races.”

Arsenault was cool and composed in the immediate aftermath of the final contest race going official, but became emotional when asked a question about the especially tight-knit group of Canadian contest players.

“These people are outstanding,” Arsenault said. “I’ve met so many good people. It’s breaking me up. “

Meanwhile, 2003 NHC champion Steve Wolfson Jr., soared to the best-ever finish for a former winner. He won $250,000, upping his career NHC earnings to $355,833. Wolfson was in an interesting spot at the final table, enough clear of third that the players beneath seemed more interested in fighting amongst themselves than chasing him. This allowed him to take continuous shots at Arsenault rather than play defensively.

This year’s NHC is doubly exciting for him. “My dad is getting inducted into the NHC Hall of Fame, as is [longtime friend] Paul Shurman,” he said. “We have played here as a group since 2003, when we all had a lot of fun. This is a new chapter in that.”

Ryan Scharnowske had a tournament to remember as well. On Saturday he just snuck in to the semi-final round on the bubble. He had a huge Sunday, working his way from 65th place all the way up to second at one point. In addition to the $125,000 he gets for third he’ll receive an additional $25,000 for finishing best of the top 40 players on the NHC tour.

Dan Kovalesky becomes the first player to make the final table twice in the four-year history of the new format. He won $30,000 for his fifth-place finish two years ago.

The NHC had a record field size of 654 entries -- 529 individual players, 125 of whom held the maximum two entries -- and offered record overall cash and prizes totaling $2,900,600 when you include the NHC Tour.

To reach the semifinals, the 654 NHC entrants were required to place 36 mythical $2 win-place bets – 18 each Thursday and Friday. They played 10 optional races early in the day before winnowing down to a final table of 10.

Here are the final top ten along with final scores and winnings:

1. Ray Arsenault ($407.70) – $800,000, Eclipse Award, and berth to NHC 19

2. Steve Wolfson Jr. ($361.10) – $250,000

3. Ryan Scharnowske ($320.20) – $125,000 + $25,000 (best top 40 tour finish)

4. Louis Filoso ($309.30) – $100,000

5. Dan Kovalesky ($308.70) – $75,000

6. Steve Hartshorn ($299.40) – $65,000

7. Joe Jarvie ($284.10) – $59,500

8. Frank Mustari ($279.40) – $54,500

9. David Bernal ($270.80) – $52,000

10.Michael Caposio ($265.40) – $50,000

Full standings can be viewed online at NTRA.com.