Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
A challenging year-long quest to unlock the riddles of handicapping came to an end Wednesday with the season finale of “Horseplayers” on the Esquire network.
After stops at places like Saratoga, Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup, the 10th and final show brought the intrepid crew of prognosticators to Florida, for one last chance to qualify for the year-end $1.5 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship final, followed by a trip to the main event itself in Las Vegas.
Three of the crew entered the finale with their bags for Vegas already packed. Christian “The Guru” Hellmers and “Brooklyn Cowboy” Kevin Cox – the show’s main protagonists and horse racing’s version of two feuding Kardashians – qualified earlier in the season. Last week at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, it was Team Rotondo member Lee Davis’ turn. Relying on the help of some voodoo chants and relics to psych out The Zen Master, a.k.a. Hellmers, and his fellow ‘cappers on the show, Davis qualified for the Vegas final with a fourth-place finish.
After a brief stop at the Eclipse Award dinner, where the cast got to put on their Sunday clothes and cast member John Conte re-lived receiving his 2009 Eclipse Award for winning the NHC, the scene turned to the next day at Gulfstream and the last-chance qualifier.Peter Rotondo Jr. and Matt Bernier broke from the gate with a win/place wager on 13-1 shot Peter Cramer and Petey prevailed by a nose to spark some hope.
After Conte celebrates moving up to 53rd (he’s definitely a glass half-full guy), we see the final race of the day and the last chance to secure one of two seats in the Vegas finale. Conte, with his eye and magnifying glass on 52nd place, opts for a wager on Forget That Gal, while Bernier tabs a 30-1 shot named Zulbaby.
When Zulbaby goes MIA and Forget That Gal finishes second, the dreams of Vegas disappear for all but Cox, Hellmers and Davis. Disappointment reigns for those who will be on the outside looking in at Vegas, like Bernier, who became the youngest NHC qualifier a year ago, reigning champ Michael Beychok, and Conte, who had qualified for the final in seven of the last 10 years.
At least for Conte there might be a silver lining. He won’t be competing in Vegas, but Internet rumors are running rampant that because of the television exposure he and his trusty magnifying glass received, he will be soon featured in a re-make of the music video for Hall and Oates’ “Private Eyes.”
The scene then shifts to Las Vegas with Team Rotondo arriving on the scene and Pops Rotondo voicing a fondness for the bygone days when Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack were the stars of the strip.Two points for him.
Cowboy Cox rides into town - he probably flew in but rides in sounds better for a cowboy – and we find out he has two spots in the final and has brought along his wife for help.
Hellmers brings along a friend, Shayna Orr, and preps for Day One of the three-day tournament by taking some supplements and belting down a drink he describes as brain food. He then burns sage, listens to music, and places his hand on Orr’s heart to, among other things, stay fully connected to the moment.
Personally, I might have prepared by reading past performances, but I guess that’s why he’s The Guru and I’m not.
The starting gate for the wagering opens as Davis sides with Ready Signal at 6-1, while Hellmers goes for an early knockout punch with Big Brown Brookski at 20-1 and Cox opts for a 7-1 shot, She’s Spooky.
Cox’s horse holds off Ready Signal at the wire and The Cowboy is already riding high in the saddle.
Next Davis tries a speed horse named Border Hopper at 12-1. His long shot is in front in mid-stretch but sadly, despite the furious pounding Peter Rotondo Sr. gave his hand with a rolled-up program, The Hopper is collared in the final strides and has to settle for second.
Hellmers tries Sweet Top Cat at 14-1 and soars up the leader board when that one rallies to win. Seeing Hellmers in fourth place after The Cat’s win, Orr offers a rather profound “OMG” to her friend, though if you ask Cox the three letters to hurl at Hellmers are “ODD.”
Day One ends with Cox in 70th place and Davis 260th, which prompts Davis to book a eucalyptus bath for the next morning to clear the minds of all three members of the Team Rotondo. All in all, it’s a strange move since they took a bath at the betting windows the previous day, but maybe his Voodoo Princess put the thoughts of cleanliness in Davis’ head.
Like what happened in the bath, Day Two sees some shrinkage for Team Rotondo. Cox stays in contention as he roots home a winner in a voice reminiscent of Mickey Mouse (hey, whatever works) and both he and Hellmers need a long shot in the last race to move on to the third and final day of the event.
Unfortunately, their hopes evaporate as the favored California Chrome takes the race in a manner as easily as he would less than three months later in the Santa Anita Derby.
The party is over for the “Horseplayers” but before the screen fades to black we see the next day’s spine-tingling drama when the final race of the day crowns Jose Arias as the NHC champion and puts a cool $750,000 in his pocket.
Finally there are the goodbyes that are best expressed by Peter Rotondo Sr., who said, “Horse racing is good for the heart in the sense of the camaraderie you get. Look at this journey we’ve been on. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
A toast by all the cast mates and a shout of “to starting it all over again” brings down the curtain on a fun, 10-episode ride that cast a new and insightful light on handicapping tournaments.
There may be thousands of dollars at stake, but the program showed that what it’s all about is the chase which may not end with the biggest prize but will always be filled enough excitement, heartbreak, satisfaction, dejection, joy and anger to stand the test of time.
It can involve family, friends or even complete strangers but in the end they all emerge with a common bond. They’re all horseplayers.
Until next time …