After a change in post time, “Horseplayers” debuted in its new time spot of Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on the Esquire Network, putting it into competition with some of television’s most popular series.
At least this episode had the Victorian charm of Saratoga Race Course going for it, using the allure of a beloved 150-year-old racetrack to battle the mass appeal of Sophia Vergara and the foibles of her modern family.
The show opens with Peter Rotondo Jr. singing the praises of heavenly Saratoga, though he and the rest of the fun-loving Team Rotondo – his dad, Peter Rotondo Sr., and Lee Davis – will have some work to do to extricate themselves from the handicappers’ dog house they were banished to after committing the blasphemous act of spending a day at Saratoga in their house in the last episode.
We get to see Peter Sr. steal a page from the Homer Simpson playbook and make love to a chocolate doughnut, and then Peter Jr. does something far more tasteful as he talks about his love for New York’s blissful Spa and how important trips to Saratoga have been to his family.
“It’s my favorite place in the world,” Peter Jr. says about Saratoga. “They have the perfect setting from the weather, to the town, to the venue. Hopefully, I’ll be coming here forever.”
Next, we get a glimpse at the softer side of the tough-talking Brooklyn Cowboy, Kevin Cox, who relates a tale about his family’s bond with Saratoga.
He mentioned how Saratoga was “ingrained” in the heart of his late dad, Walter J. “Bijou” Cox, and that after he passed away he had a plaque mounted on a wall at the track in honor of the longtime horseplayer.
Every year, Cox places a flower next to the plaque during the week of his dad’s birthday in August.
Interestingly, Cox had an equipment change for this segment as he wore a white Cowboy hat instead of his ubiquitous black one, suggesting we might see a kinder, gentler handicapper this week.
Mamas, perhaps you can let your handicappers grow up to be cowboys after all.
Next the Zen Master of handicapping, Christian Hellmers, and young Matt Bernier arrive on the scene in advance of the episode’s centerpiece Battle of Saratoga Handicapping contest and another crack at a seat at the at the year-end $1.4 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship.
The feel-good stories continue with the introduction of Michael Beychok. Tape of the race that clinched his victory in the 2012 National Handicapping Championship is shown and while the crowd around him is going wild as they try to root home his stretch-running selection, Beychok is just grinning like someone popped Quaaludes in his oatmeal that morning.
Since we know Beychok won, it’s no surprise to see his selection, Glorious Dancer, wins the race by a nose, but the nice part was to hear that he used part of his $1 million payday from the NHC to buy the filly and retire her.
Team Rotondo finally realizes it’s a lot more fun to be at the track than at their house and they come out to join the festivities with Peter Sr. likening his arrival on the grounds to being “in the fetal position in his mother’s womb,” which makes you wonder if he’s campaigning to lengthen the meet from 40 days to nine months.
It’s now time for the contest, and Hellmers, the self-proclaimed California Jedi, steps out with a wager on 27-to-1 longshot Wisdom of Oz, a name which evokes some razzing of the “guru” from Peter Rotondo Sr.
Hellmers has the last laugh as “Oz” magically wins.
“You’re the best, guru,” Rotondo admits after the shocker.
Even Cox, now back in black, voiced admiration for the risk Hellmers took, saying: “I wouldn’t bet that horse with Monopoly money.”
The Great and Powerful Odd one, then gets to chirp, as Hellmers says, “In order to make money, you have to find something other people don’t see. Certain guys, I don’t know if they really have the mind-set where they want it. They’re not necessarily hungry enough. I’m one of the best players at this. I know how to play this game. I know how to play these tournaments.”
The quest for longshot winners continues and we get plenty of information about the strategy that can win a tournament. We also get way too much information when Davis announces he is underwear off for the tournament.
Moving forward after that – it would be next to impossible to go backward – both Rotondo Sr. and Cox place their biggest wager of the day on a 12-to-1 longshot named Orino, a horse they emphatically root on to a narrow victory.
However, the racing gods, perhaps after hearing about Davis’ wardrobe, intervene. The inquiry sign goes up. Cox and Rotondo insist their horse is faultless, though Bernier warns otherwise.
Bernier is mired in a bigger 0-fer than Zippy Chippy, so his words are quickly dismissed by the unlikely coupled entry of Team ’Tundo and Cox.
A few minutes later, when Orino is indeed disqualified, Cox takes out his wrath on a trash can. Fellow series regular John Conte chips in that the stewards got it all wrong, but it’s hard to put much stock in anything Conte sees at this point. Judging by his less-than-stellar performance in the last few shows, Conte can definitely use some Windex for his ever-present magnifying glass.
The day ends with Beychok in 12th while Hellmers has melted away like a wicked witch to 19th despite his score with the wonderful Wisdom of Oz.
Before Day 2 commences, Beychok decides to invest more of his 2012 jackpot into horseflesh as he works with adviser Bruno DeJulio to find a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton sale. One catches his eye, but in keeping with his near misses at the mutuel windows he’s outbid.
So it’s back to the track, where Conte tries in vain to convince Bernier to use a magnifying glass, though personally I couldn’t see why.
Team Rotondo returns and Peter Sr. proclaims that their backs are to the wall, which hopefully convinced Davis to put on his Jockeys for this day’s trip to the Spa.
The tournament continues and Saratoga becomes a “Graveyard for ‘Horseplayers’ “ as the crew backs one loser after another.
Hellmers then joins forces with Team Rotondo to cover two longshots in a race, which apparently did not sit well with Mother Nature because it produced a downpour at the Spa.
Hellmers also tries to get Beychok to sign on with them, but the former champ, who is ahead of both of them in the tournament, is suspicious of the eccentric one’s motives and blows him off.
Team Hellmers/Rotondo then clicks with a 7-to-1 shot that lifts Hellmers into 10th place.
A final $40 bet on Apollyon at Arlington gives them a crack at the $100,000 first prize – which would easily cover a few pair of bloomers for Davis – and could make them the stars in a more fantastic finish than “freight train” Forego in the 1976 Marlboro Cup.
Apollyon sets the pace and at the top of the stretch he gives them a brief glimmer of hope that he may indeed last on the front end, but the finish line, despite Peter Jr.’s impassioned pleas, does not arrive in time. Apollyon weakens in the final yards and winds up third as the great tease of that last race leaves all parts of the coupling exasperated over losing $100,000 and a NHC seat at the wire.
The final placings in the tournament are displayed, showing Beychok in 15th and Hellmers in 22nd.
It’s another week and another tournament down, with one very important lesson served up.
If you’re going to spend the day at the track, don’t leave home without your underwear.
Until next week …