Ray Arsenault talks handicapping tournaments, black magic and harness racing. By Melissa Keith
Ray Arsenault admits he’s “kind of surprised” to be contacted for a TROT Magazine interview. “I didn’t know why the trotters would want to do an article on me,” chuckles the current Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship title-holder, while en route to Florida’s Gulfstream Park.
On January 29th, 2017, Ray took home the big tournament’s top prize ($800,000 U.S. and a bye to next year’s NHC 19), and he has also just qualified for the Horse Players World Series, an annual Thoroughbred handicapping tournament held at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Arsenault is the sort of dedicated, passionate bettor that any racetrack would want as a regular. Starting out, the Thornhill, Ontario resident was a harness-only horseplayer. “I was always a standardbred guy, from a long time back,” he reminisces. “Out of high school, I’d go down to Greenwood with my dad, Henry, and my uncle, Manuel Schembri. I always just played standardbreds, at night.”
In 1985, Arsenault and several friends deepened their involvement in harness racing, becoming owners. “The main horse we claimed was called Armbro Abbot [p,1:55.4f; $218,182],” notes the 2016 Eclipse Award-winning Handicapper of the Year.
“We just claimed him off a guy, out near the Milton area. We paid like $15,000 and ran him at Greenwood. He won his first start, and then he ran again and won, and then they [Greenwood Raceway horsemen] went on strike. We took him to Flamboro; we ran him there and he ran second. Then when they came off strike, we put him in a $30,000 claimer; he won that race and he got claimed by [trainer] Ernie Spruce.”
Armbro Abbot naturally won his next start, at The Meadowlands, “by half the length of the stretch.”
“He became a really nice pacer - a free-for-aller,” says an unperturbed Arsenault. “I don’t know about at The Meadowlands, but he ended up at Pompano Park. I’m thinking he was like the Free-for-Aller of the Year for a couple of years.”
Losing Armbro Abbot did not turn him off standardbred ownership or wagering; far from it. “When you put them in for the claim, that’s a chance that you’re taking,” shrugs the down-to-earth horseplayer. “He was a lot of fun, and then we had a couple of more that won - a couple of cheap claimers, and then we bought a nice horse [pacer Star Status p,1:57.3f; $100,837] that we actually had run as high as $50,000 claiming. He ran like third and then we lost him the next start, for like $35,000.” Arsenault typically shared 25% of each racehorse with co-owners drawn from among his baseball and racquetball acquaintances. Trainers Gary Kingshott and, later, Rick Kane helped locate additional partners seeking 25% shares.
Harness was always Arsenault’s preferred type of racing, from his youth until the final days of Greenwood Racetrack. While his parents met in Toronto, both were born in PEI: his mother near Charlottetown, his father near Summerside. “Years ago, we used to go down [to PEI] with the family,” recounts the 65-year-old handicapper. “Being a horseplayer with my Dad most of my life, we’d just go to the track with my uncles. We’d end up at Summerside and have a few beers and bet a few races.”
How does a man so entrenched in harness racing as a player and owner decide to walk away? Arsenault admits he never plays the trotters or pacers anymore, although he will watch the odd race.
“I’m strictly a thoroughbred guy. The standardbred days are gone. Because of the excitement,” the mostly-retired freight broker explains, with the resolute perspective of a Gulfstream Park regular. “I still sometimes watch the big [harness] races, but they lost me when they went to the seven-eighths and the mile tracks and ‘The Meadowlands shuffle’. They lost me, big time. I couldn’t handicap it anymore. I liked the half-mile tracks, you know: single-file, they get position, post position is a big thing. But when The Meadowlands started and they started doing the ‘shuffle’, you could be first at the quarter and last at the half! It’s hard to handicap that.”
As a handicapper, Arsenault sees almost no overlap between his past and present wagering choices. “It’s two different games. After owning and playing [standardbreds], I just decided to take it easy and somehow I got into the thoroughbreds,” he tells TROT. “I never expected it, but I did.” Some baseball teammates introduced him to the runners in the early ’90s. Arsenault didn’t enter into thoroughbred ownership; his new gambling buddies weren’t owners. Following an inauspicious start handicapping the unfamiliar breed, he spotted a winner in a Las Vegas sportsbook, circa 1996.
“We’d get up every morning, ensure we’d be there [at the sportsbook] for the first race at 9:30, and we’d stay all day and play thoroughbreds,” recounts the champion handicapper. “While we were there, we ran into some fella that had a computer. We sat with him and he told us that he had made this program and he just uses this program exclusively.”
Arsenault, an admitted $2 bettor in most pari-mutuel transactions, was instantly captivated.
“I had a hard time understanding the thoroughbreds, being new to it. There’s so many different angles. The racing form gives you a lot of information that takes a long time to figure it out. So when the fella was telling us ‘This is what you do - this is how you use it,’ and we started using it, we started getting some winners.”
The program, Michael Pizzolla’s “Ultimate Handicapper”, became Arsenault’s go-to resource. He entered his first handicapping contest at Woodbine in 2004, qualifying for the 2005 NHC on his second attempt.
There were fewer opportunities to make the cut at the time, according to Arsenault. “There was Woodbine; maybe Edmonton [Northlands] had a contest; maybe Hastings Park [BC] - I can’t remember,” he says. “I ended up qualifying for Vegas [i.e. the NHC] and we thought this was great, this is exciting, so a bunch of us went and we had a ball.” He finished 29th of 213 competitors, narrowly missing a lucrative top-20 finish in the tournament’s sixth edition. After purchasing an upgrade for Pizzolla’s system, Arsenault reports that he spent three weeks mastering its use. “Strictly using my software, I won the  contest at the Orleans [Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas]. I won like $97,000 back then. That was a good one.”
Anyone can buy handicapping software. “It’s how you interpret the software, and I just found a way that I liked to look at it, and other people find different ways,” remarks Arsenault, who brings his own analytic sensibilities to the commercially-available program now dubbed “Black Magic.” “It has [helped], but not 100%. I don’t use it 100%. I use my head; I look at the racing form. I have my angles; I have all kinds of stuff that I look at. I look at Black Magic, but the ultimate decision is me.”
The former harness bettor says his 2016 NHC title is based more on strategy than luck or Black Magic. “Actually the first day, I didn’t do very good. I was 313th after the first day, so I was behind by half.” The dedicated longshot player refused to alter course. “First off, I don’t play short prices, so my winners, they all have to be longshots, usually 10/1 or higher. I don’t play 5/1 or lower, let’s put it that way. I’ll play a 6/1, 7/1, but very rare that I’d play a 5/1, unless it’s a mandatory [betting race in a contest] and I absolutely love the horse.”
On day 2, four double-digit longshots gave Arsenault the winnings he needed to put distance between himself and the next-best in the 654-entry, 529-player tournament. (Some players had the maximum of two entries. Arsenault had one entry, which he had earned courtesy of a fourth-place result in an NHC qualifier at Del Mar.) His final bankroll of $407.70, collected by way of 53 hypothetical $2 win/place wagers over three days, earned him the championship.
“That’s what I played for, all my life: to win this. It was amazing!”
As we talk, Arsenault is readying for another day of playing the ponies at Gulfstream, but still enjoying the big win from January. His regular approach to the races was vindicated in the NHC when he successfully selected a Gulfstream winner so high-priced, it exceeded the contest’s maximum-admissible single-ticket payout of $64 per $2 bet. “In my day-to-day betting, I do the same thing. Saturday was the day I got the hundred-dollar horse [Proctor’s Ledge]. That got me going - put me in the game.”
The Thornhill horseplayer is candid in acknowledging his high-risk, high-return philosophy is not for everyone. “You’ve got to accept losing, playing horses. If you can’t accept losing, you shouldn’t be playing this game,” he cautions. By his own admission, Arsenault was never a particularly successful harness punter back in the day. It’s hard to guess whether the level of work he currently puts into handicapping the thoroughbred cards and tournaments would also pay dividends in his original game. He has no interest in finding out.
How diligently does Arsenault follow his newer passion for the thoroughbreds? “Every day!” he laughs. “I’m there four times a week. That’s what I say - I’m in Fort Lauderdale. I’m like half an hour from the track. Every day I get up, I download Gulfstream, and I go to Starbucks or Panera Bread and I spend two or three hours going over the card. Then I’m ready for the day.” He’s emphatically not the guy buying a program half an hour before race #1 loads into the starting gate. “Exactly. That’s my whole thing: preparation is the key to success.”
That’s one important take-away for harness bettors. “Like you say, you can’t just walk in and open up the form,” advises Arsenault. “I have friends that think they can. They don’t do well. Once in a while they get lucky, but you’ve got to be prepared. That racing form looks so small, but it’s got so much in there that you have to spend time on a race. Over the years I’ve met so many great handicappers and they spend probably a lot more time than I do handicapping, getting prepared.”
Part of preparation is isolating the races most suited to his style of play. What does the NHC winner look for when choosing his spots? “Well, I’m not a big trainer guy, but I am a big angle guy.” Arsenault’s favourite angle is “a lot of them”: “Something new. A buddy of mine, Bill Sherman, actually told me this a bunch of years ago: ‘You find something new, a horse might like it.’” Form improvement or even abrupt reversal can come from equipment changes, a new jockey (or driver), or, in the case of thoroughbreds, going from dirt or synthetic to turf, or vice-versa.
Another tactic is ill-advised for those unwilling to go too long between cashable tickets. “Me, I like horses moving up; I’m not a big fan of horses moving down,” notes the decidedly non-risk-averse Arsenault. “If the trainer feels confident in his horse, that he’s found something since the last race and now he’s decided to move him up… I had an example a couple of weeks ago here [Gulfstream]. A horse got claimed for $25,000. He was a maiden, and the trainer worked him two bullets back and moved him back to maiden special weight [a higher class of maiden race]. He went off at 20 or 25/1, maybe even higher, and he won for fun.”
In addition to hypothetical wager-based tournaments like the NHC, Arsenault takes part in many cash tournaments. These events bring serious horseplayers together in an ultra-competitive atmosphere he calls “the thing of the future for contests.” Not for the faint of heart or the minimally-bankrolled, competitions such as Gulfstream Park’s Ultimate Betting Challenge attract players of Arsenault’s caliber.
“It’s a $4,500 buy-in; $1,500 goes to the prize pool,” he explains, giving the amounts in American dollars. “$3,000 is live bankroll, so you have $3,000 to start. They use two tracks, Santa Anita and Gulfstream. You have to bet a minimum of three races at each track, $200 a race, but after that you have to qualify for the prizes and the prize money. At the end of the day, you have to have bet $3,000.” Win/place/show, exactor and triactor betting is all fair game, but no multi leg wagers allowed, and usually no superfectas.
Arsenault is a believer in the potential of cash tournaments. He sees them as a better way to grow the mass appeal of handicapping and wagering than commonly-cited approaches like reducing takeout. “The live money is the thing of the future because it gives the track more of a churn. Let’s say you get like a hundred guys playing this week: they’re putting up $4,500, but $3,000 [per bettor] or $300,000 [total] is going through the windows. Do the math! For the track, their takeouts are ridiculous. Triactors are 25%! They take a quarter off every dollar you bet, so that’s why they want to go this route.”
Most of the time he plays a cash tournament, over 100 people have signed up. “Oh yeah! Look at the Breeders Cup - it had 400 people at a $10,000 buy-in!” exclaims the Canadian handicapper, one of a handful of non-Americans following the circuit. “Keeneland has one in April which I’ve been going to since it first started ten years or more ago. $3,000 buy-in, with a $2,000 live bankroll, and that was 30 guys, way back when. They put us in the Keeneland Executive Turf Club; it was amazing. You had to wear a jacket and tie, and you still have to.” The Keeneland event has become so popular that 135 people registered for the 2017 edition at the first available chance, he adds; in recent years, the sheer volume of entries compelled organizers to relocate it to the dining room overlooking the track.
Surprisingly, the Eclipse Handicapper of the Year says the live money competitions suit him better than “the 2-2” ($2 win, $2 place, hypothetical money) ones like the NHC. “With the live money, it’s your money. How you play every day is how you bet,” he clarifies. “It might change your monetary amount that you would usually bet on a day at the races. You have to bet certain minimums: like this weekend [at Gulfstream], you have to bet $200 a race, six times. So, some people don’t [usually] bet $200 a race - I don’t bet $200 a race - but it’s exciting! Breeders Cup, they make you bet $900 when you have to play a race! It gets the blood going!”
Ray has arrived at Gulfstream. He exits his car and his voice is occasionally drowned out on the windy March day, but the gusts don’t really have a chance of winning - Arsenault is practiced in the art of screaming his horse home. “You want to yell!” he laughs. “That’s why you play these [tournaments]: so you can yell your horse in! And you know, I do. Yesterday I qualified for the Orleans, like we talked about. My buddy and I each had the 23/1 shot that got us up there, put us in position, and we rode that horse down the stretch! All the way down! That’s the fun part about it! Watching everybody get involved in the race. Where else can you get that thrill?” Arsenault even good-naturedly chided a man who apologized to him the previous day at the Florida track. “He says ‘Sorry for being loud.’ What do you mean ‘sorry’? That’s what you’re here for!”
When not on the extended tournament circuit, the celebrity horseplayer is a Woodbine contest regular. “There’s like half a dozen of us that go to the contests at Woodbine; they have three or four a year now,” he continues. “We all sit together. I’ve met a lot of people from Woodbine over the years.” On the road at Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland, Arsenault says he encounters a handful of fellow Canadians. “Actually, I partner up with a couple of Canadians,” he adds. “They’re good handicappers, from Woodbine - Allan Schaffer and Lorne Weiss. Allan actually finished 40-something and cashed at the NHC. He got some money!”
Arsenault says he won’t be back in Thornhill until the end of April. His wife, Shirley, approves of his tournament schedule and he’s chasing another title in Las Vegas. “The Horse Players World Series [is] a three-day event that starts March 30th - Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” he explains, enthusiasm building. “They offer 8 tracks that we play: Thursday, maybe 7 tracks; Friday-Saturday, there’ll be different thoroughbred tracks that we can choose from.” Open to unlimited buy-in entries, the event features a purse of over a million dollars this year. “Three days, you play 15 plays each day, no mandatories - whatever you want to play, you play, and it’s win/place. Similar to the NHC, but the NHC has mandatories, where we have to play 8 manadatories and 10 of our own. Orleans, it’s just 15 plays a day and you get to pick whatever you like.”
The longshot player concedes that his method requires a little luck to succeed. “I’ve been there many times where I’ve zeroed out. Two pages of zeroes; three days of zeroes. I’ve been doing this for 20 years; I’ve been going [to the Horse Players World Series] every year since they started it.” The pure enjoyment keeps him and other Canadians coming back. Now, Arsenault says the NHC, the $800,000 tournament win that landed him in Rolling Stone magazine, can help reformulate public perception of racing and wagering to include that inadequately-depicted side: the intense emotion of tournament play, shared with similarly-minded friends, in luxurious racetrack or casino environments.
“That’s what the NHC needs to do, and I’m going to do it this year with them: promote getting new people into the game,” reveals Arsenault. “Telling them, ‘Where can you win $800,000?’” That’s where tournaments have an edge on regular pari-mutuel wagering: “You can’t win $800,000 in a day at the racetrack unless you hit the Pick 6 on your own. It’s impossible, but for a small investment, you know, you can go online and get in the NHC for $160 and win $800,000. You can get lucky and win $30,000 or $40,000, but you can’t win this six-figure number. Five guys at the NHC won $100,000 or more.” Tournament horseplayers don’t typically abandon regular wagering activity either, he observes. “A good majority - I can’t say everybody - that plays contests still bets.”
He needs no additional incentives. “Me, I go to Gulfstream four days a week, and if I’m not there, I play from home. Just to play, because I love to play!”
Ray Arsenault, ex-harness horse owner and player, reigning NHC champion, is no longer interested in harness racing. For him, the standardbred days are gone, his betting days dedicated to the runners. Perhaps, extending him an invitation to a future World Harness Handicapping Championship is in order? The 2017 edition is slated for April 29th at The Meadowlands.