It certainly gets late early on “Horseplayers” as this week’s episode on the Esquire Network brought the intrepid handicappers to Gulfstream Park and the sunshine and glitz of Florida for a mid-October tournament as time grows short in the chase for a coveted spot in January’s $1.4 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship.
The show came on the heels of last week when Christian Hellmers, the self-proclaimed Jedi Knight, put on a rebellion at the betting windows that would have made Admiral Ackbar green with envy – or at least hungry for a plate of squid. He finished second in a tournament at Keeneland Race Course, punching his ticket to Las Vegas for the NHC final, and did it while channeling his inner Hansen (the horse, not the boy band) and wearing a white tail with black polka dots on it (Folks, I do not make this stuff up).
His solid showing at Keeneland now has Hellmers wheeling around Miami in fancy, new wheels (apparently Luke Skywalker was using the X-wing fighter for the weekend) while telling handicapping buddy Matt Bernier that since he already has a seat in the final he might skip the Gulfstream tournament if he can hook up with a new lady friend.
Meanwhile, some intervention might be needed for the struggling Team Rotondo, which has fared about as well at the betting windows as the Philadelphia 76ers have on NBA courts of late.
The youngest member of the crew, Peter Rotondo Jr., is not in Florida because of his day job, which is serving as vice president of media and entertainment for Breeders’ Cup Ltd. He’s in California, while his dad, Peter Rotondo Sr., and their buddy Lee Davis are at Gulfstream for the contest.
Junior, though, does call Senior and says thoughts of Florida are resurrecting bad childhood memories of spending too much time at the track and not enough at the beach. There’s mention of therapy (Hellmers and his polka dot tail might want to join them to see if the shrink will give them a bigger group discount), but before Jerry Springer can enter the scene, we see Rotondo Jr. at Santa Anita. He’s with talk-show host Conan O’Brien, who is at the track to call a race in a supposedly comical manner but only winds up illustrating why NBC honchos are on their hands and knees thanking the Lord that Jimmy Fallon is the host of “The Tonight Show”.
BEG TO DIFFER, CONAN'S RACE CALL WAS HYSTERICAL - JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
Next, we see Hellmers at the track hatching a scheme for the next day’s contest. He’s trying to convince Bernier to enter under funding and advice from the Zen Master himself that would give Hellmers a chance to control a second seat at the NHC final. Bernier’s initial facial expression as he listens to Hellmers’ pitch pretty much mirrors the skeptical look most people get when they open an email and learn they have won $20 million in the Guam National Lottery.
Bernier says no, then hedges and adds “at this point,” which no doubt means once the show airs he’s destined to be flooded with emails from his friends that they have been robbed in England and need him to wire money to someone in Nigeria.
Bernier then meets up with Kevin Cox. Hot as pistol at the start of the series, Cox has been cold of late. Cox says he’s pulling for Bernier and he should not let the pressure of landing a seat in the final affect his handicapping.
The betting commences with Bernier, Team Rotondo, Cox and the affable Michael Beychok - the 2012 NHC champ - all liking Red Hills, a 17-to-1 shot.
Cox lets the television audience know there’s a new sheriff in town as he sees too many AARP members entered in the contest and says because they are older they will play more conservatively. He says he can get the jump on them by chasing and cashing on longshots.
Of course, what Cox neglects to understand is that with age comes wisdom, a fact of life which booted him in the spot where Hellmers sported his tail as Red Hills headed for the hills and finished a distant fifth while the co-6-to-5 favorites ran 1-2 (Interesting note not in the show, when free of the “Horseplayers” anchor around his mane Red Hills won his next race at 6-to-1 odds).
As we reach the first commercial break, which is pretty like the opening quarter of a mile race, we see Bernier, Beychok, John “The Magnifier” Conte, Cox, Davis, and Rotondo all have $180 left from their original stake, but only trail the leader by $144.
Conte then professes admiration for Team Rotondo as they, like him, do not use a computer to handicap. Based on the way Conte has been doing on the show, that is about the best commercial there is for handicapping software.
Beychok and Bernier, perhaps because talking about horses hasn’t helped them, then engage in an awkward conversation about bringing a girlfriend to the track, which segues into Hellmers in a pool talking to two attractive women in bikinis.
We then get to see Christian and his date getting a massage while the “Horseplayers” crew is grumbling as they choke in a cloud of chalk dust. On second thought, maybe Hellmers isn’t that kooky after all.
Nah, he is.
Davis tries to bust out with a wager on a 14-to-1 shot who is leading until the final strides when he’s passed, evoking mucho angst.
They then all land on a 15-to-1 shot, Chillean Brother, which in fairness to the folks at Gulfstream should have been announced to the crowd so they could have steered clear of him.
Another loss has Beychok wishing “The Guru,” a.k.a. Hellmers, was there to provide some karma.
The string of favorites, though, fosters hope among the crew that one big score can vault them to the top, so Beychok tries a 30-to-1 shot at Keeneland named Skilltopaythebills, whose poor effort will not help pay a dime’s worth of bills.
After adding one more loser to their bill, the crew again focuses on Hellmers playing mind games by texting them selections, which is a pretty sad.
To fall under the spell of a true Svengali is one thing. To be outwitted by a handicapper in a headband, heart-shaped sunglasses and a polka dot tail means you might need professional help.
At this point, it’s a wonder the episode’s soundtrack hasn’t become one-hit wonder Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” as Rotondo nearly breaks his hand while smacking it with a rolled-up program in a futile attempt to boot home an 11-to-1 shot.
We hear some venting about the fruitless chase from Conte, who is one-upping his handicapping buddies by having a bad hair day.
The crew finally raises the white flag and leaves Gulfstream with their tails between the legs, which should teach Cox to have more respect for his elders.
Up next is a tournament at the Breeders’ Cup, and we get a preview of that episode in the closing minutes. Team Rotondo is reunited at Santa Anita and Pete Jr. introduces his dad and Davis to guitarist Richie Sambora, who somehow winds up shining Davis’ shoes. If only Heather Locklear could see him now.
Before the curtain comes down, we see Conte flashing a wad of cash and talking about turning it two or three hundred thousand dollars.
It’s plausible, but after what we saw from him and the rest of the horseplayers at Gulfstream, their new motto should be failure isn’t an option, it’s inevitable.
Guys, you had a bad day.
Until next week …