The Esquire Network’s reality series “Horseplayers” broke from the starting gate on Tuesday night, flashing a nice turn of early speed as it introduced us to five of the main characters in the 10-week-long odyssey to break the bank at the betting windows.
Next week, three more characters will join the mix. From the preview clip, some of these handicappers will turn as catty as a bunch of real housewives, but for starters the maiden program focused on two types of handicappers as diverse as the coasts they live on.
Set in the fall of 2012, the first of 10 hour-long programs focused on the exploits of three-pronged Team Rotondo and John Conte on Cigar Mile Day at Aqueduct in New York and Christian Hellmers as he chases the top prize in the Breeders’ Cup handicapping tournament at Santa Anita Park in California.
Not surprising the East Coast and West Coast experts ran to form as the New York-based crew wore their emotions on their sleeves during the races while the California-cool Hellmers was so remarkably restrained while watching his races that it was natural to wonder if he was having an out-of-body experience.
Hellmers said he stares so intently at the television monitor during a race that it’s as if beams of energy are shooting out of his eyes and being transferred to his selections – which if it worked all the time might land him a spot in the next Avengers movie.
Until then, he’ll have to stick to TV work – and making stacks of money at the racetrack.
The show opened by introducing Conte as well as Team Rotondo – Peter Rotondo Sr., Peter Rotondo Jr. and dad’s racetrack pal Lee Davis – on separate trips to a diner for a quick breakfast before arriving at Aqueduct.
It became immediately clear that much of the program’s levity will be generated by the Rotondo crew as Rotondo Sr. and Davis quickly engage in a lively verbal sparring match as they go over the day’s card. When Davis says his best bet of the day is Jersey Town in the Cigar Mile, the then 63-year-old Peter Sr. not only ridicules his buddy’s choice but he vows to run around Aqueduct nude if Jersey Town wins – which rated as a pretty good reason to join the anybody but Jersey Town club.
Conte, as part of his introduction to the viewing audience, tells how he won $500,000 in 2009 by winning the National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship and that the money – aside from helping to pay for the large magnifying glass he uses to read past performances – allowed him to buy a few horses. He then points out how the monthly bills for his horses are costing him as much as it would to “keep four women,’’ showing that he’ll also be in the running for series wise guy. That’s until, however, we see a sequence when he pulls up lame by telling the waitress at the diner that he has a sure-thing for her: “Lunch 12-1.” Oh, brother.
Soon it’s post time, and at Aqueduct we see that Team Rotondo is high on Bernard’s Galaxy in the first race while Conte prefers Al Dente and Kathy’s Kitten.
We then see the race, with cutaways to the emotional handicappers, which shows Kathy’s Kitten leading late in the stretch run with Bernard’s Galaxy chasing him. The two draw even and then … a commercial.
Remember, folks, it’s a TV show and you have to pay the bills.
We return to find the boisterous Team Rotondo has prevailed, connecting on their $300 win bet, while Conte awaits another race and another opportunity.
We then head west and see Hellmers, trademark headband affixed, talking about the contest and his hope of winning several hundred thousand dollars while avenging a stinging runner-up finish in the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup handicapping contest.
Hellmers, who bases his handicapping on probability analysis and the pursuit of value, heads to the paddock looking for negative items, like a sweaty horse, to help craft his pick and comes up with a $2,500 win bet on Zagora in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
With a wanna-be Trevor Denman voicing the call, we see Zagora charging toward the front as the wire and another commercial approaches.
After the break, we learn that Zagora was victorious at 9-1 and Hellmers is in first place by a substantial $27,000.
Now it’s back to Aqueduct, where both Team Rotondo and Conte are backing Unlimited Budget in the Demoiselle. Before the race starts, Peter Sr.’s 22-year-old wife, Olena, joins the guys at the track, adding an interesting dynamic to mix.
Perhaps Olena is a good luck charm as Unlimited Budget triumphs.
Now it’s time for the Cigar Mile and we find out that Jersey Town has been scratched, removing the possibility that “Horseplayers” might have to move to an adult entertainment channel. Here Team Rotondo backs Groupie Doll and Conte sides with Stay Thirsty.
The race is shown, with Groupie Doll straining to hold on to the lead and Stay Thirsty chewing into the margin in the final strides, when, yes, it’s commercial time. After seeing why you should avoid a chain of events that can culminate with your dad getting punched in the stomach over a can of soup, we see it’s jubilation for Conte and anguish for Team Rotondo. Their Pick 6 and Pick 4 tickets are shot, but, hey, when dad has a 22-year-old wife how bad can life be?
Now it’s back to California, where Hellmers is contemplating betting on Little Mike in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at 17-1. He’s hesitant, so he holds hands with his girlfriend in a muddled mass that resembled the old church-steeple-see-all-the people game, relying on his hand muscles to send a message to his subconscious about whether he should bet on Little Mike (I’m not kidding, folks).
He says the grip felt stronger when he thought about betting on Little Mike, so Thoroughbred racing’s Zen master invested $1,500 on Little Mike that netted him another $25,500 for his contest-leading bankroll.
It’s getting late in the day, and at Aqueduct we see Team Rotondo and Conte backing the same 11-10 favorite in the last race and then say goodbye to them as they head for the exit with a frown when the chalk runs off the board.
The drama shifts back to California where Hellmers makes his final bet, $2,000 to win on Fort Larned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Calmly and quite coolly, he watches the 9-1 shot win and then awaits the announcement of the winner of the contest – which hits him like a punch to the stomach from Mike Tyson in his prime.
It seems Patrick McGoey, the nemesis who edged past Hellmers in the final race of the previous year’s Breeders' Cup contest, used a bigger win bet and also hit the exacta to once again grab the lead in the final bob and relegate Hellmers to an emotionally disappointing but financially rewarding runner-up finish.
And with that, the first episode went official, but before the screen turned dark, a preview of next week’s episode showed the whole cast in action at last year’s Triple Crown, where it’s a safe bet that the competition will be lively as both egos and bankrolls will be inflated and crushed in the pursuit of the thrill of victory – not to mention some Benjamins.
It’s still early, but after the first furlong, it’s fair to say “Horseplayers” is moving at a lively pace.