Some 20 years ago, if someone had suggested airing a poker tournament on network television, the idea would have prompted more laughs than an episode of “Seinfeld.”
A few years later, though, the creation of a hole cam to show players’ hands and the development of a format that taught viewers how to play the game better and showcased the colorful personalities of the competitors elevated the table game to new heights of popularity.
Now, it’s time for racetrack handicappers to get their face time on a television.
A new, 10-week series named “Horseplayers” will shine television’s bright lights on horse racing’s fast-paced and highly dramatic world of handicapping tournaments, following the adventures – and misadventures - of eight diverse experts as they make decisions that can backfire or put a stack of dollars in their pocket and propel them closer to a coveted spot in the $1.5 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship.
“I can earn over 20 percent a year on betting in the course of the long run,” says professional handicapper Christian Hellmers, one the show’s main characters. “But in a contest I have to make a 500 or 900 percent return on my money in a day or two. That’s what the greatest players in the world are made of. There’s a great art to this.”
The original series will air Tuesday nights on the Esquire Network at 10 p.m., beginning with its Jan. 21 debut. It should give the world of reality television a new set of charismatic characters in a genre that already has created social icons out of the likes of real housewives and duck call manufacturers with an aversion to shaving.
While there may not be a Snooki or The Situation among them, the eight stars of the show promise to rewrite the somewhat negative stereotype of devoted horseplayers.
Don’t bother looking for a bald, cigar-smoking, gravelly voiced AARP member with a scribbled-on Daily Racing Form in hand. The group reflects the new era with pros like Hellmers, a 36-year-old headband-wearing, spiritualistic vegan who relies on algorithms to find value plays; Matt Bernier, a 23-year-old realtor; and the fun-loving Team Rotondo trio of 64-year-old father Peter Rotondo Sr., 38-year-old son Peter Rotondo Jr. and dad’s 49-year-old racetrack buddy Lee Davis.
There’s also Michael Beychok, a political consultant who just so happens to be the 2012 National Handicapping Champion; John “The Grass Is Greener” Conte, the 2009 NHC champion who will resurrect images of a Victorian era detective as he reads past performances with the help of a magnifying glass; and Kevin Cox, a former jockey agent and retired New York City mounted police officer.
THE CAST OF COLORFUL CHARACTERS
|Christian Hellmers||Matt Bernier||Michael Beychok||John Conte|
|Peter Rotondo Jr.||Peter Rotondo Sr.||Lee Davis||Kevin Cox|
The series will take them through contests at locales like the 2012 and 2013 Breeders’ Cup, all three Triple Crown races and Royal Ascot and culminate with the April 8 episode, showing the frantic chase for NHC spots at the upcoming Gulfstream Park Last Chance Handicapping Tournament and the free-for-all for the $750,000 grand prize at 2013 NHC at the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas.
The key to success with any reality show is developing characters the viewing audience can embrace, and “Horseplayers” offers an intriguing cast of characters.
Hellmers, who lives in San Diego, calls himself the “odd ball” of the group. He’s an entrepreneur by trade who develops handicapping algorithms, and says he uses every possible shred of information to handicap a race and find suitable value at the betting windows or in his contest plays.
He claims to never play it safe, and on the show he’ll be facing the difficult task of trying to beat the odds under the watchful eye of a television camera, but he says he welcomes the pressure of performing under the critical eye of a national audience.
“It’s definitely like having God on your shoulder,” Hellmers says, “because you’re going to be held accountable for anything you say or do. But that elevates awareness and I love it.”
For Rotondo Jr., handicapping is just a part-time gig. He has a day job as the Breeders’ Cup’s vice president for media and entertainment, but Rotondo spends his spare time handicapping and has become quite successful at it.
In the show, he’ll be teamed with his father – who can probably be the subject of his own reality show as he has a 23-year-old wife – and the elder Rotondo’s buddy Davis.
The family-driven banter among the trio prompted Hellmers to say they are “straight comedy”, while the younger Rotondo compares the antics of his dad and Davis to routines out of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello.
Together they should make for a lively and witty coupling, and the younger Rotondo fully understanding the value of providing compelling characters for the good of both the show and the sport.
“This program can show the inside world of handicapping and horseplayers in the sense that the old stereotypes will be rewritten,” he says. “Christian is the antithesis of the old stereotype. We also have a 23-year-old in Matt. You’ll see some interesting characters that will destroy the existing stereotype of a horseplayer.
“We’re letting people pull back the curtain and see what handicappers are really like and what they face, and I think viewers will really like it.”
Given the unpredictable taste of the modern-day television audience, it remains to be seen if folks like Rotondo or Hellmers will become household names as popular as pawn shop managers and tow truck operators and have the paparazzi hounding them. For sure, “Horseplayers” promises to shine a better light on the sport than the dark side illustrated in the HBO series “Luck,” and the focus on handicapping could prove as beneficial to the racing industry as the invention of a hole cam proved to be for poker.
As for becoming a hit for a recently launched cable network, who knows. As any TV viewer from the mid 1990s knows, a show about nothing is now considered the greatest series ever.
If it worked for Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer back then and quacksters like Phil, Si, Jase, Willie and Jep can attract 11 million viewers a week these days, it just might work for racetrack folks like Christian, Peter and John.
NOTES: “Horseplayers” will debut Jan. 21 on the Esquire Network at 10 p.m. and run through April 8. The 10 original episodes will air weekly on Tuesdays, with the exception of Feb. 11 and 18 when it will be pre-empted for coverage of the Winter Olympics.