The greatest compliment one can give Horseplayers, the new reality series of upstart cable network, Esquire, is it’s real. Not in the sense of the reality TV genre – a place where housewives duke it out, “survivors” plot, scheme, or eat bugs for money, or the lovelorn foolishly seek out future mates while millions watch their desperate hearts break.
No, Horseplayers, simply introduces us to characters that frequent the track looking to make $1 into $2 or $5,000 into $250,000. John Conte, a former National Handicapping champ with a gait reminiscent of the late Johnny Cash and a slicked, shoe polish-black mane that shares his picks over a breakfast of egg whites and decaf coffee. Team Rotondo made up a Breeders’ Cup executive, Peter Jr., his dad, Sr., a former public handicapper and his best bud, Lee Davis, pool their funds looking to cash a Pick 6 ticket. This trio’s day starts at a diner, as well, with banter falling just a few decibels and bravado short of the Soprano’s gang gathering at Artie’s.
Shockingly our first track visited is the winter home of the New York Racing Association – Aqueduct. This not a place of glitz and glamour on its best day, most of the time it’s bitter cold as racing happens here from the late fall to early spring. On this day, Team Rotondo and Conte are making bets through the track’s 2012 swan song – Cigar Mile Day. Even more shockingly the first bets made, watched and cashed are on a $16,000 claimers running on the grass. Not the easiest spot to start any betting day.
Over on the Left Coast we are treated to a new age bettor, Christian Hellmers, who has brought his girlfriend to Thoroughbred racing’s biggest day, Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. He’s here competing in the richest qualifying event for the National Handicapping Contest with a return of $250,000, all while betting his own, live bankroll.
Like all the players here, his methods are never revealed, but he is clearly the biggest winner of episode one, cashing thousands of dollars of bets on long shots nonetheless. He doesn’t claim the tournament victory, narrowly losing to the same competitor two years running. His disappointment mirrors his muted victory celebration, that is, something bordering on nonexistent.
We really shouldn’t be surprised as a man letting $10,000 bets fly needs some modicum of balance. Hellmers finds his in clear thoughts, searching for high vibrations with a cleansing of eucalyptus oil hand wash and sip of coconut water. It’s captivatingly strange watching, half-expecting this sweatband wearing gambler to break into a puddle of tears, joyous or not.
Episode one swings from each coast as winners and losers emerge. Team Rotondo more readily wears their hearts on their collective sleeves, when kibitzing, betting and cheering on their charges. We are told that they come within a whisker of cashing a big score when their Groupie Doll, loses probably the closest of photos you’ll ever see to Stay Thirsty in the Cigar Mile.
It’s evident Conte has seen his share of both sides of close finishes. In between peering into his past performances through a magnifying glass, he spouts one liners like, “There’s one way to win, but 500 ways to lose.”
And so it is with Horseplayers. The show has begun with a promising start. If the folks that brought us Animal Planet’s, Jockeys, can steer clear of stereotypes and orchestrated drama through careful editing, then Horseplayers has a fighting chance to be successful. That’s not to say, that egos won’t converge as previews foreshadow, especially from young gun, Matt Bernier who proclaims that he’ll be the youngest National Champion. Additional cast members will include past champ, Michael Beychok and a New York cowboy in Kevin Cox.