By: Peter Fornatale for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, June 10, 2019 – Canadian horseplayers have made quite a name for themselves internationally over the past decade. Between wins in the National Handicapping Championship by Brian Troop, Ray Arsenault, and Chris Littlemore, and a Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge win by Tommy Massis, as well as several other scores in major tournaments at brick-and-mortar venues and online, some USA players have wondered when, if ever, the domination from north of the border might end.
If Allan Schaffer has his way, it won’t be any time soon.
At the recent Preakness Betting Challenge, where he played from Santa Anita Park, Schaffer became the latest Canadian player to win an important event, netting around $50,000 in cash and prizes.
“I’ve played in enough of these contests to know that you usually win with a bet in the last race,” said Schaffer, a 69-year-old real estate executive who moved to Toronto from Montreal in 1977. “I felt that I’d need $15,000 to get me up in the money where I wanted. If I didn’t have that much going in to the last, I wanted to have enough where one bet could get me there.”
Like a lot of successful tournament players, when Schaffer handicaps the races in a tournament, he does so in reverse order. This came in very handy in the Preakness event.
“I do that because I know how important the last race is and I don’t want to be tired when it’s time to look at the most important race,” he said. “I also do that because I want to be in the right mindset in case something unexpected happens along the way.”
“Unexpected” is a polite word for what happened to Schaffer in the Preakness itself. He had built a decent bankroll and made a sizable wager on Bodexpress. Bodexpress dumped his rider at the start. “I didn’t get much of a run for my money, did I?” Schaffer joked.
It was the type of frustration that could lead to poor judgment going forward. But not this time, because he already had the contest’s last race, a maiden event at Santa Anita, fully doped out. “My bet was going to depend on the prices,” he said. “I wanted to bet the horse I liked best who could get me to $15,000.”
Schaffer wasn’t too impressed with the horses who’d already run – none of whom had run a par figure for the class. He was intrigued by a first-time-starter of Phil D’Amato’s named Kiana’s Love, who was the right price for him and (according to Andy Harrington’s workout report) had outworked Barbadolla, the other D’Amato starter that had run and was bet to 3-1.
“She had a good speed rider up in Maldonado and when I saw her come out in blinkers I felt very good about her chance to go right to the lead,” he said. “She broke on top and always looked a winner.”
He was ninth heading into the last race and assumed someone in front of him would have moved up more but figured he’d at least land in one of the top money spots. “I was very surprised when $15,000 held up over that battle-tested field,” he admitted. “These were the top players in North America, a group that’s not afraid to go all in.”
Schaffer’s contest journey has been well documented. His first big win came in the Woodbine contest in 2005, a two-day event held over Travers weekend. He’s been to the National Handicapping Championship 10 times (2020 will mark his 11th trip), and has tasted NHC success with in-the-money finishes of his own and also because he had small percentages of the wins by Troop and Arsenault.
“We don’t play together in the sense that we don’t even know who is playing what in the contests but we do take a small percentage of each other’s tickets from time to time,” he explained. “Different people are going to get lucky on different days, and it’s great to have a piece of the excitement even if it’s not your day.”
Schaffer is also known as one of the players – along with Arsenault, Lorne Weiss, and Ross Gallo – who spearheaded the Pegasus Betting Challenge, the most player-friendly contest format ever devised with the house putting up the prize pool instead of the players.
“It meant everything when Frank Stronach decided to do that,” Schaffer said. “Traditionally, we horseplayers haven’t been made to feel like first class citizens by the racetracks, but the Pegasus contest makes it clear that there are racetrack executives thinking about horseplayers, the people who fuel the industry.”
Schaffer’s introduction to the game was pure serendipity. At age 16, he was vacationing with a friend in Lake George, N.Y. “We were on the beach and a guy came up and told us he was going to Saratoga for the day and he asked if we wanted to go, too,” he recalled.
“After talking to him for a few minutes and determining he wasn’t the type of guy to have an axe in his trunk, we decided to go along. It took me one day to fall in love with racing.”
From there, he started going to Blue Bonnets in his native Montreal. And he stayed a fan when he made the late 70s move to Toronto where, of course, there were even more racing options.
These days, he divides time these days between Toronto and Century City, California, where his daughter works as an executive for Netflix. On his trips through California, he attends Santa Anita with her and his six-year-old grandson. “He’s been several times, and he’s usually interested in whatever activity they have going on for kids in the infield,” he said, “but I’m really looking forward to the day when he starts to read the Racing Form.”
Perhaps he’ll be another great Canadian handicapping champion.