Undaunted by the previous episode’s close-but-no-cigar finish in a tournament at Saratoga Race Course, Wednesday’s two-part edition of “Horseplayers” brought the program’s resident prognosticators to the Jersey Shore for a tournament at Monmouth Park.
With the chase for a handicapper’s holy grail – a spot in the year-end $1.4 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship final in Las Vegas – proving to be elusive for most of them, the crew tackled the cash money tournament with gusto, formulating their strategy in the opening scenes
In an early surprise, we find that Peter Rotondo Jr. has shed his hat for this episode, perhaps feeling his chapeau has been blocking Lady Luck from bestowing good fortune on him and fellow Team Rotondo members, dad Peter Rotondo Sr. and good buddy Lee Davis.
The first of the crew to step forward with a wager is young Matt Bernier, who has provided an even bigger surprise to date than a sans-hat Rotondo as he has somehow managed to remain a pleasant, normal fellow despite spending large chunks of time with the show’s ever eccentric, spacey, self-professed Jedi, Christian Hellmers.
Bernier, showing loyalty, opts for a $10 wager on Fight to Win, one of his losers at a Belmont Park tournament.
His allegiance is rewarded with a decisive victory and Bernier, who qualified for the previous year’s NHC through an online tournament, can ponder the possibility of whipping a roomful of seasoned experts to break his on-track maiden.
The betting begins in earnest, though noticeably absent from the mix is “Brooklyn Cowboy” Kevin Cox. Apparently, his pony found the Hudson River too deep to cross.
Hellmers steps to the plate with a $40 bet on a 6-to-1 shot named Glass Art and “The Guru” connects for a home run when his horse wins. He, too, talks about taking home all the marbles and grabbing the NHC spot.
As the tournament progressed, the stream of bleeped out words pretty much summed up how the crew fared – except for Hellmers, who comes into the penultimate race in ninth place and takes one last swing for the fences.
With two races left, he bets his $347 bankroll on Phil’s Dream at 4-to-1, and with Team Rotondo rooting the horse home (one of the few things the beleaguered team did well in this episode), Hellmers belts a grand slam as Phil’s Dream delivers a heavenly victory.
As his castmates sing Hellmers’ virtues, the Zen Master of Handicapping awaits word on the new leaderboard, which comes after some commercials.
We soon learn Hellmers is indeed in first place by $539, a margin not even the 1978 Red Sox could give back. Right?
In his final bet, Hellmers places $100 on 8-to-1 shot Slammin’ Dixie and hopes for the best, knowing a top-two finish in the tournament will earn him a ticket to Vegas.
Slammin’ Dixie fizzles as a 10-to-1 shot wins the race and now Hellmers has to sweat out the final standings, which pretty much left him feeling like that old Red Sox team.
The heart-breaking word then comes that two players used the 10-to-1 winner to storm past Hellmers and drop him to third place.
He is at least philosophical about it.
“I’m playing this game forever. Every situation is almost like an appearance at the plate so it really doesn’t impact me,” he said. “It was a chance to win a seat to win a million bucks, but it’s kinda like the probability of coming to grips with the probability of any situation. When I go out with girls, I know there’s a 10 or 20 percent probability they are going to give me their phone number, so it’s one of those things. You have to be realistic.”
After another commercial break – during which Hellmers no doubt put in a call to eHarmony to help boost the odds in his love life – the second half of the doubleheader brings us to majestic Keeneland Race Course for a $3,000 buy-in tournament.
Before the gambling starts, we get a nice diversion as Team Rotondo, Bernier and Peter Jr.’s friend Lucy Jones (daughter of former Kentucky governor and well-known horse owner Brereton Jones) head out to Lane’s End Farm to visit Zenyatta.
We get to see Zenyatta’s victory in 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which is always a thrill and certainly a highlight of any racing program.
Next, it’s back to picturesque Keeneland where Cox has ridden into town and Hellmers arrives at the track having, in Cox’s words, “a tail attached to his ass.”
Really. He’s wearing a tail.
Cox said he wanted to keep his opinion about Hellmers’ asinine stunt to himself, avoiding the temptation to make a rear-end run with a comical quip.
Bernier, the youngest 2013 qualifier, shows up, but due to the high cost of the tournament he sits out it. He says the tournament will help him decide if he wants to become a professional handicapper and instead of chasing a NHC seat he gets to spend the day with Keeneland paddock announcer Katie Mikolay Gensler, learning about the prerace appearances of horses.
All in all, it’s certainly better than being seen next to a guy like Hellmers, who is wearing a furry, white tail with black dots at a contest where everyone else is in jacket and tie and, in Rotondo Jr.’s case, a bowtie.
Hellmers invests half his bankroll in trifectas to start the day. He needs the “6” horse to prevail in a photo finish for third to collect and by the width of a horse’s tail, the horse does indeed take third. Hellmers takes the lead in the contest and has the rest of the contestants looking up at his tail, for real.
As Hellmers ponders how to keep his butt in front, we get some paddock lessons from Gensler. Bernier and Gensler both like the look of Quite Explosive, an 8-to-1 shot, so Bernier texts fellow ’Capper Michael Beychok about the horse.
Beychok, the 2012 NHC champion, has to decide whether to make a small bet on the horse or go to all in. He decides to have a beer before he makes a decision and ultimately takes only a sip, placing only $106 of his bankroll on the “looker.”
When Quite Explosive rallies to win it’s “yahtzee” for Beychok who jumps into 15th place, and owes Gensler and Bernier a few beers at the very least.
Gensler and Bernier then met up with Katie Jones and former Gov. Jones, who tout their horse Myositis Dan, a 16-to-1 shot. Team Rotondo jumps on board and so does Hellmers, who makes a win bet and uses him in some triples.
Matt and Katie, and the Jones family prove to be deserving of champagne this time as Myositis Dan wins. All is now well in the world. Bernier gets to join in the winner’s circle photo and the crew celebrates their score at the betting window.
A race later, Beychok, who was miffed at not going all-in with the first winning tip from Matt and Katie, becomes wishy-washy again and makes a small win and exacta wager instead of a large bet on the favorite he likes. Again he stubs his foot as the favorite wins but he misses the exacta.
As they say, when things go wrong …
The last race arrives with Hellmers in front and he has to put his butt on the line, making one final bet. He has to decide between making a big show bet on one horse or following Cox’s strategy of making several win bets. He opts for the cowboy’s strategy.
Team Rotondo elects to bet its remaining $943 on Tree Hugger while Hellmers bets an even amount of money on every horse in the race, guaranteeing him of a payoff. Then as late money comes in on the favorite, Hellmers bets an additional $500 on him.
Tree Hugger hangs like the branch of an elm in the stretch for Team Rotondo and the favorite is collared at the end by the second choice in the wagering, sobering the mood.
Hellmers has to nervously await the final results, which is a pain in the butt, but he does not need to head home with his tail between his legs. He finishes second, earning a coveted NHC seat at the January final.
We never do find out why Hellmers sported the appendage to his rear, but in the end (where else, right?) it seems he was simply intent on scripting a grand tale at Keeneland. No buts - or butts - about it.
Until next week …