Matt Bernier is the unlikeliest character on Esquire TV’s new reality series, Horseplayers. A 23-year-old part-time real estate agent, and full time handicapper, living in the western Massachusetts suburb of West Springfield, Matt turned a first time online tournament win into a starring role on Horseplayers.
Bernier affords his Cinderella-like rise to what will always be his all-time favorite Thoroughbred, Jersey Town. This handicap veteran was an 8-1 shot in a short field with two heavy favorites, Shackleford and To Honor and Serve on the Jockey Gold Gold Cup undercard race, the Kelso Handicap in 2012. Seeing the two heavy hitters as vulnerable, Bernier put Jersey Town in as a key tournament pick, and then played a round of golf while the races went off.
A surprised Bernier saw his name atop the leader board – the handicapping one, not golf – at day’s end. So, a trip to Vegas for the National Handicapping Championship was earned. He didn’t win the tournament, but he was noticed as being one of the youngest tournament qualifiers at 22. A few months later Bernier received an email asking if he wanted to be on a TV show about betting horses. After an initial, skeptical reply of, “Yeah, sure,” a Skype session with producers was arranged and three weeks later Bernier was at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby and filming. The rest, well, is evolving history.
With Horseplayers just wrapping up shooting and the second episode ready to air, I spoke with Bernier, who was still catching his breath. He was courteous and thoughtful through our 30-minute conversation. What follows is the first part of that interview. Enjoy!
Is it fair to say you’ll be seen as the young gun on Horseplayers?
Yeah, I think I’ll definitely be considered the new guy and the fresh face. There are a couple of guys on the show that are still younger guys. You know, you’ve got Christian Hellmers, Peter Rotondo Jr., and even Kevin Cox. I make a joke about it kind of often: You go to an OTB or I when I went NHC last year, half the people in the room are old enough to be my father and other half are old enough to be my grandfather. I didn’t have anybody to relate to. I would say I’m the young buck of this group.
Could you use just a few words to describe each member of show?
John Conte: old school, knows his stuff, scary reminds me of my grandfather.
Christian Hellmers: incredibly knowledgeable, Southern California lifestyle, oil and water, me and him.
Peter Sr: very much like a father, one liners left and right.
Peter Jr: big brother figure, knows 98% of horse racing community.
Lee Davis: a lot like Peter Sr. father figure, one-liners galore .
Kevin Cox: New York through and through, one of the best tournament players around.
Michael Beychock - another father figure, very similar to me personality wise
How much reality is in reality TV?
I would say, and I am going based on what people working on the show have said also. This is as real as it gets…it’s a horse race and ultimately you can’t fake the results. They are what they are. So, you see the reaction, not necessary in real time, but you see how we were feeling at the time for better or worse. That’s kind of the best part about this, you can’t fake it.
How did you feel placing a bet on a typical day when you don’t have cameras following you around, compared to how it was camera and crew? Did it change anything for you?
Well, the camera and crew part for me, I eventually get used to it. As far as making my own bets I wouldn’t say they we’re necessarily different. I can’t play as nearly as big or often as the other guys do, but the big difference was that during tournament play, which you’ll see in the weeks to come that we need to explain why we’re doing certain things. I know a lot of people have had concerns that we’re not getting into the handicapping part of it – that’s all coming once tournament time starts. It really doesn’t necessarily affect the way I go about doing things…it’s an extra thing we have to do – make your bet than immediately explain to the camera why.
How much is left on the cutting room floor?
I remember asking one of the producers one time and again my numbers are probably going to be way off… they said they had thousand of hours of footage that they had to trim down to essential 10, 45-minute episodes. I don’t how, I said, “God bless whoever is the one doing it you have so much to pull from…”
Are you primarily an online player or are you an at the track kind of guy from West Springfield? What’s the percentage of where you place your bets?
For me the vast majority is online just because…I don’t want to say I’m in no man’s land out here. You’re out on the Eastern part of the state (Massachusetts), I consider my home track Saratoga. I can get to Saratoga in about an hour and ten minutes, where it will take me an hour and fifteen minutes or an hour in twenty minutes to get to Suffolk. I am close enough to the tracks in Long Island – Aqueduct and Belmont – I’ve been to them. I do the majority of my stuff online. And then in the summer I’ll go to Saratoga four, five times during the meet. Hopefully more now after all this stuff has happened.
In episode two of Horseplayers you eluded to having to pay the rent with a bet, are you a professional handicapper? Is it a part time job? Do you have another part time job supports your handicapping?
I’m still involved in real estate, but I think the term professional handicapper…I know for a handful of the guys on the show this is, truly, this is what their income is. I guess at some point I could eventually go down that road, but at the moment the bankroll is not there for me realistically do that. I still do it, and I do very well with it. My buddies kind of give me a hard time, saying that actually real estate is a supplement to my horse racing because I make a majority of money off horse racing. I guess if you want to call that the professional part of it so be it. I like to think I’m good at my hobby… I guess you could say entrepreneur. Why classify one thing as the true profession, let me have a couple of different things I can dabble in.
So far there has not been a lot of the how, the Horseplayers handicap, so what is your process or emphasis when you go through the past performances to formulate your bets?
I’m big on race shape. I would like to be able to visualize before a race happens, what I think is most likely to happen. Let’s just say you go through a race ten times, who’s going to get to the lead the majority of time, barring a bad break or some racing issue and go from there. I like to go about pace – if you get a race loaded with front end speed then obviously it’s more likely to set up for someone from behind or vice-versa. I like to envision how the race will be run. I’ve heard a lot of people recently say they don’t think pace matters hardly at all - that it’s all kind a class thing. To each their own, but that’s what makes the game fun, that there’s not one tried and true method to do it.
Would you say playing the horses is humbling?
Oh, absolutely and you know I’ve had a lot of success out of the gate last year. The first tournament I entered, I won. I qualified through DRF.bets for the NHC. They did the whole nine yards – paid for the flight, hotel and all that stuff. So I went out to Vegas (in 2012) thinking this is cakewalk. Just write a check for $750,000 right now and I’m going to cash it. I got out there and quickly realized it was full-on-deer-in-the-headlights kind of thing. If you’ve never been out there during the NHC, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever been around. You know what, you can think that you’re the greatest handicapper in the world. And I would expect most people to – and I keep stressing that …look, you can’t go into an event, or go into a race card thinking you’re going to lose, because if you’re thinking that way, you’re going to lose. But if you’ve never been to NHC, it’s unlike anything you’ll ever deal with. The amount of tracks going on, and the amount of races going off, people hooting and hollering. It’s hard to focus. It’s a marathon to a "T". It is just a draining, draining event. Anyone who has success out there deserves all the credit in the world.