LAS VEGAS — Sometimes the plans you don’t make are the ones that work out best. Just ask the current leader in the National Horseplayers Championship at Treasure Island.
When retired Canadian auto worker Chris Littlemore saw the odds were not to his liking on the ninth race at Aqueduct on Saturday, he came up with a plan B – an 18-1 long shot in the seventh race at Oaklawn Park.
Lo and behold, Holiday’s Angel came through with a decisive stretch run in the slop to win by a length in that allowance race. That thrust Littlemore into a lead that he only widened, making him the top qualifier for Sunday’s semifinals of the NHC and a guaranteed slice of the nearly $3 million purse.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “They jump off the page sometimes when you’re looking at the form. Today was one of those days.”
Littlemore, 58, has turned his imaginary $72 stake on win and place bets into $311.70 overall with $187.10 coming just Saturday. Another $4.40 and he would have passed another Canadian, William Holmes, to be the top player just on day 2. While Holmes won the daily prize of a $10,000 entry into the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge next fall, Littlemore may have bigger things in his future – like the NHC’s $800,000 first prize.
“You’ve got to get lucky,” he said. “I didn’t get what I wanted at one track, just went to another one, found something else, and it worked out for me.”
Keith Fenton of Fort Worth, Texas, is second, $57.40 behind Littlemore. Daniel Hart of Batesville, Ark., is third, $80 off the lead. The top 70 in the field of 702 advanced to Sunday’s semifinals. Dennis Klein, also of Canada, got the 70th spot with $173.40.
As he was choosing between his Aqueduct and Oaklawn plays, Littlemore said the rainy weather in Arkansas had him shying away. But the odds on his first choice at Aqueduct were more of a turn-off. That is when he took a hard, quick look at Holiday’s Angel.
“I don’t like playing wet tracks, but that horse was a big overlay,” Littlemore said. “I noticed he was 1-for-1 on the slop. I took a shot with him, and boom. That’s fantastic, right?”
A former winner of this event’s consolation tournament and a five-time qualifier for the NHC, Littlemore did not sit back on his new-found lead. He used another of his 10 optional plays Saturday and hit a long-shot winner in another allowance race when 12-1 Dano’s Dream beat the favorite by a head in the eighth at Golden Gate Fields.
“I still had a couple of bullets left out there,” Littlemore said. “I was just biding my time to see what the rest of the field was going to do. I like horses coming off wins, and he was coming off the turf as well. I’m thinking 12-1, why not? I was looking for something with value, and that’s what I found.”
A resident of suburban Toronto who worked 31 years at the General Motors plant in nearby Oshawa, Littlemore said he did not qualify for this contest until he finished 13th in an online tournament last month to get him into the top 150 of the NHC Tour standings.
Now holding the lead in North America’s biggest handicapping contest, Littlemore said his family is more than excited back home.
“My wife is freaking out at home,” he said.
Littlemore is bidding to be the second consecutive Canadian to win the NHC. Ray Arsenault, who also lives in Toronto when he is not wintering in Florida, was the 2017 winner. He stood 567th through Saturday. No previous NHC winner made the cut, meaning there will be another new champion as there has been all 19 years of this event.
The luck did not end at the tracks for at least one semifinalist. Gloria Kahlden of St. Petersburg, Fla., who is fifth with $208.70, hit a $44,000 jackpot on a slot machine outside the Treasure Island Ballroom.
The regular edition of the racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current show covers the National Horseplayers Championship. National Thoroughbred Racing Association COO Keith Chamblin and Keeneland-based racing executive/horseplayer Jim Goodman are the guests. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.