Updated on 09/17/2011 11:16PM

Katrina survivor's respite from reality


When shoot for the $500,000 purse in this weekend's Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, some might dream of using the prize money to pay off credit cards, finance their child's education, or plan an extravagant vacation.

But no player in the NHC field needs the $225,000 first prize more than 68-year-old retired New Orleans fireman William Gonsoulin Jr. He is trying to rebuild his life.

Gonsoulin is from St. Bernard Parish, La., an area that was socked by Hurricane Katrina last August. It was one of the hardest-hit regions of metro New Orleans. Six feet of flood waters ravaged Gonsoulin's home and claimed almost all his possessions. Flood waters also destroyed the homes of Gonsoulin's five children and two grandchildren, all of who lived within two blocks of him. None of them had insurance.

Now Gonsoulin, along with his wife, Judith, and his daughter and granddaughter live in a trailer parked in the driveway of his wreckage-strewn property. His house is 60 percent destroyed and there's a sticker on the front indicating that the structure has been condemned. It's just a matter of time, he says, until it is bulldozed away.

"It's like living on a landfill now," Gonsoulin says. "It's total devastation. You can't get the scope of how big it is from watching TV."

Gonsoulin was lucky to even survive Katrina after choosing not to evacuate as the hurricane approached. As the flood waters rose, he broke into a neighbor's two-story home and climbed upstairs to stay dry. After being stranded for several days, he got on a barge that traveled about 50 miles up the Mississippi River. He got off and rented a place in Harahan, La. Other neighbors weren't so fortunate, including a close friend who drowned in the aftermath of the hurricane.

Afterward, it was by pure chance that Gonsoulin ended up entering - and winning - the Fair Grounds NHC qualifying tournament on Dec. 10, which punched his ticket to Vegas.

Gonsoulin needed to pick up the trailer he now calls home, which was for sale in Arkansas, about 30 miles from Hot Springs. Gonsoulin, an avid horseplayer who travels around the country to play in contests with his wife, heard that the Fair Grounds contest, like the shortened racing meet, had been moved to Louisiana Downs in Bossier City.

Said Gonsoulin: "I had heard about the tournament, but obviously I was pretty busy. When a friend told me about the camper in Arkansas, I told my wife 'Let's do the contest.' I told her we'd leave a few days ahead of time and play in the contest before getting the camper. It was only a few hundred miles away. I had a lot of things on my mind, but I said to myself 'I can do it.' "

Gonsoulin earned $14,000 for winning at Louisiana Downs. The prize money covered the $6,500 he needed for the trailer.

Every day continues to be a struggle for Gonsoulin and his family, he says. There are no stores to buy food and other necessities in New Orleans. He just recently got electricity. There are no signs that St. Bernard Parish will be rebuilt in the near future.

"I'm starting again with nothing," Gonsoulin says. "It places a tremendous amount of stress on you."

Gonsoulin will get a much-needed break from the nightmare back home at the NHC. He's not new to the event. He finished 162nd in 2004 after qualifying at Fair Grounds. Judith Gonsoulin qualified each of the last two years.

Gonsoulin is aware of the media attention he will get while in Vegas, especially with ESPN television cameras taping the event for a special one-hour show to air on Feb. 19. But he doesn't seem to mind.

"I want people to know that I'm not the only person who's gone through this," Gonsoulin says. "I'm just one of thousands. I'm getting the publicity because I'm the one in the contest."

If he wins the contest, Gonsoulin says he will use the money to continue piecing back together his life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. In fact, he will be shooting for an unprecedented handicapping tournament payday - $1.25 million - including a $1 million bonus kicked in by Churchill Downs Inc. should he win the NHC at Bally's on Friday and Saturday.

Gonsoulin, who has been playing the races for more than 50 years, says he will choose to bet the cheaper claiming races when possible during the tournament because he feels the payoffs are usually higher. He also knows how difficult the mandatory races in the NHC can be.

"They really pick the toughest ones," he said.

They may look tough to most handicappers, but compared to some of the hardships Gonsoulin has has overcome in the past five months, they probably appear easy to him.