Ray Arsenault of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, near Toronto, entered the Final Table as the leader and widened his advantage throughout the afternoon to win the $800,000 first-place prize and an Eclipse Award as Horseplayer of the Year at this weekend’s 18th annual Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship (NHC) presented by Racetrack Television Network and Treasure Island Las Vegas. 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.
The 64-year-old Arsenault (b. June 10, 1952) amassed a winning score of $407.70 over the three-day tournament from 53 mythical $2 Win and Place bets – 18 each on Friday and Saturday, 10 in Sunday morning’s Semifinal round and seven in the dramatic Final Table contest exclusive to the overall top 10.
Steve Wolfson Jr., the 2003 NHC winner, posted the best finish ever for a former champion, checking in second with $361.10, good for a $250,000 prize. Wolfson, whose father Steve Wolfson Sr. will be inducted into the NHC Hall of Fame this evening, made a move up the LuxAir Jets Leaderboard during the Final Table, jumping from fourth to the runner-up spot, but never could close the gap on Arsenault.
Wolfson was followed by Ryan Scharnowske ($320.30 final bankroll; $125,000 prize), who started the day in 65th place, in third, and Louis Filoso ($309.30; $100,000) in fourth.
The official Top 10:
Place – Name, Hometown (Final bankroll) – Cash and awards
First – Ray Arsenault, Thornhill, Ontario, Canada ($407.70) – $800,000, Eclipse Award, and berth to NHC 19
Second – Steve Wolfson Jr., Holly Hill, Fla. ($361.10) – $250,000
Third – Ryan Scharnowske, Westfield, Ind. ($320.20) – $125,000
Fourth – Louis Filoso, Asbury, N.J. ($309.30) – $100,000
Fifth – Dan Kovalesky, Shorewood, Minn. ($308.70) – $75,000
Sixth – Steve Hartshorn, Fallbrook, Calif. ($299.40) – $65,000
Seventh – Joe Jarvie, Renton, Wash. ($284.10) – $59,500
Eighth – Frank Mustari, Des Plaines, Ill. ($279.40) – $54,500
Ninth – David Bernal, Grand Prairie, Texas ($270.80) – $52,000
Tenth – Michael Caposio, Temecula, Calif. ($265.40) – $50,000
Arsenault first assumed the lead at the end of Day 2 (Saturday) with a $24.80 winner, Friend to Me, in the ninth race from Fair Grounds. It was his fourth double-digit winner on the afternoon, also including a $100 winner, Proctor’s Ledge, in Gulfstream Park’s fourth (worth the maximum $64 for contest scoring). Arsenault had a slow start to the NHC, finishing Day 1 (Friday) tied for 313th with a $56.50 bankroll. But then the barrage of longshots began.
“I had that $100 horse yesterday that got me off the schneid to get me in the game, and the rest is history,” Arsenault said.
Entering the Semifinals this morning, Arsenault debated whether to play it safe to protect his lead or stick with the longshots that got him there and that he typically plays on a daily basis.
“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.
“You know how hard it is to get to this Final Table? It’s tough. You’re playing against 650 of the best players out there. They’re all great.”
This is the seventh 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 racing going official, but in a live interview moments later with Daily Racing Form tournament editor Peter Thomas Fornatale on At the Races with Steve Byk, a question about the especially tight-knit group of Canadian contest players made him emotional.
“These people are outstanding,” Arsenault said. “I’ve met so many good people. It’s breaking me up.”
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 player 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.
Wolfson, meanwhile, nearly made NHC history with his bid to become a repeat winner.
“Ray did a great job,” he said. “I’m very happy for him and even happier for me to finish second.”
The NHC was held for the sixth straight year in the Treasure Island ballroom and will return to Treasure Island for NHC 19 in January 2018.
In the NHC Future Wager offered by Treasure Island’s race book, Arsenault closed at 100-1, returning $202 on a $2 wager.
The NHC 18 finals awarded cash to the top 66 finishers (the top 10 percent overall) from a total purse of $2,440,000. An additional $50,000 went to the top 20 in today’s Consolation Tournament. Including $250,000 paid out to top finishers in the year-long NHC Tour, a $100 TI casino chip for every entrant, NHC Tour travel awards, RTN subscriptions and the $10,000 charity tournament prize, plus $30,000 worth of Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge entries, the aggregate value of payouts this weekend in NHC cash and prizes totaled a record $2,900,600.
To reach the Semifinals, the 654 NHC entrants were required to place 36 mythical $2 Win and Place wagers – 18 on Thursday and 18 on Friday. This is the fourth consecutive year with a three-day format including the Semifinals and Final Table.
Final Table participants were relocated to a single table on the stage of the Treasure Island ballroom that serves as NHC headquarters.
Full standings can be viewed online at NTRA.com, where the LuxAir Jets Leaderboard features sortable/searchable standings of the entire field.