02/01/2017 1:22PM

At NHC 18, there was no stopping Arsenault


Ray Arsenault had been here before.

Just one year ago, Arsenault entered Day 3 at the National Handicapping Championship in position to secure a spot at the final table and walk away with $800,000.

“Last year I said to myself, ‘I hope I can pick a couple of longshots and that a lot of favorites win [in the other races],' ” said the 64-year old transportation broker from Thornhill, Ontario.

Arsenault’s picks went cold as the bombs fell all around him.  “It was pretty funny,” Arsenault continued. “I was sitting at the table and every time a longshot won and I dropped down the leaderboard I said, ‘There goes another $3,000.’ ”

In the end, he finished 26th, good for $16,500 but not all he hoped for. “It was disappointing,” he admitted. “I wanted to get to the final table but it wasn’t meant to be.”

This year, Arsenault managed only four collections on Friday, Day 1, but he knew from the year before how quickly one’s luck can turn. “I thought I still had a chance,” he said. “I got up early Saturday morning , met my buddy Steve Thompson" -- aka The Undertaker -- "and we started grinding it out.”

The key horse came early on: Proctor’s Ledge for trainer Brendan Walsh at Gulfstream. The $100 winner (limited to 20-1 win and 10-1 place for $64 in the contest) got him up to $120. “I started feeling like maybe I have a chance,” he said.

His selection of Proctor’s Ledge began when he identified that race, Gulfstream’s fourth, as likely to produce a longshot. “Talking with Steve, we didn’t like the favorite and we thought something interesting could come in,” he said.

Proctor’s Ledge’s had a bit of a trip in his last race and the winner of that race, Dontmesswithjoanne, impressed him. Despite a cold start to the meet, Arsenault knew Walsh had plenty of nice-priced winners at Gulfstream over the years, and the horse projected a good trip under Corey Lanerie from the hedge. “I’m not afraid of betting a 50-1 or anything at a price,” Arsenault explained. “You can’t win this game playing favorites or short prices. The cappers are what you need, and when I hit one, my confidence got going and I just started hitting horses.”

For the remainder of the day he had seven more collections, including scores of $41.80, $31, $34.40, and $35.20. He’d risen from 133rd place in the standings all the way to the top, $30 clear of second.

As Sunday morning approached, Arsenault thought back to the events of last year, but he didn’t let that experience faze him.

“When I got up that morning, I just had a feeling that it wasn’t going to happen like last year,” he said. “My plan was to go attack the seven mandatory races at the final table.”

In a bold strategy, he decided to look at the 10 optional plays he needed to make on a race-by-race basis.

“I only got three place tickets in those 10 but nobody close enough had those bombs and I was able to get to the final table still on top,” he explained.

He whiffed in the first mandatory before settling on the Richard Mandella-trained Peach Cove in Santa Anita’s fourth. She returned $24.20, and he was feeling good that he wouldn’t be worse than second. Then in the fourth mandatory he chose Mr. Tickle, the three horse.

“I’m a big proponent of picking horses who have something new -- a new trainer, new blinkers -- and this horse happened to be first-time turf,” Arsenault said of the selection. “He had good form prior to his layoff, he had one race on the dirt since, and I thought this could be the one who could vault me over the top.”

He walked up on stage and was standing next to Steve Wolfson Jr., who was in second. “He’s a great guy I’ve known for years,” Arsenault said. “He said, ‘I’ve got the three,' and I looked at him and said, 'I hope he wins.' "

The look on Wolfson’s face said it all: He knew he’d been blocked.

After Mr. Tickle won and returned $43.60 – the longest price in a mandatory over the three days – Arsenault and Wolfson were way ahead of the rest. “I knew then if a bomb didn’t come in, it would be all over,” said Arsenault.

He caught place points in Golden Gate’s eighth, but Wolfson was still theoretically drawing live to catch Arsenault heading to the final race (though a careful examination of the place pool suggests Arsenault would have won in regardless of the last race result).

Arsenault moved to block Wolfson again, selecting the one horse who was hovering in cap range. Wolfson selected the eight, and for a second it looked like Arsenault would have to sweat the last race.

“Stranger things have happened,” he said, “but that would have been a tough beat.”

When the gates popped, the eight came down to 19-1, and he knew he was home free. “As it turned out the odds were in my favor and it was time to celebrate.”

Arsenault grew up around the racetracks of Toronto. “My dad was a $2 bettor; he had to work and needed some relief,” he said of his childhood racing experiences. “We’d go down on a Saturday from the time I was in grade one and he’d leave me to do my own thing and I started handicapping as I got older and right through.

“My cousins and I would go into the bins and anywhere guys would leave their programs. At old Greenwood, down on Queen Street, you could get in for free for the last two races, so when people would come in for those we’d sell them programs for 10 cents each.”

Racing is still an important family event for Arsenault. He had a moment when he called his mother, now 92, to tell her about his big win.

“I take my mother to Woodbine every Sunday in the summer,” he said. “Most of the time she picks more winners than I do. I called her and that broke me up; she’s just a great lady.”

She’s also the dam of National Handicapping Championship winner.