The third installment of “Horseplayers” brought the show’s collection of intrepid handicappers to Belmont Park, the place where Frank Sinatra tells us that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
In this instance, if the handicappers can make it in this two-day, June 2013 contest, they’ll get a chance to make it in an even bigger way at the year-end $1.4 million National Thoroughbred Racing Association/Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship.
Three spots in the NHC final are up for grabs and a familiar cast of characters opens the show. We see Team Rotondo – father Peter Rotondo Sr., son Peter Rotondo Jr. and dad’s pal Lee Davis – and John Conte arrive at Belmont Park. Conte’s driving a Jaguar, so you know he’s doing pretty well with this handicapping stuff.
Matt Bernier tells us the $400 entry fee is akin to a month’s rent for him, which illustrates rents are a lot cheaper in Massachusetts than New York City.
Michael Beychok, the 2012 NHC champion, sits at a table with Team Rotondo and they exchange pleasantries but then the mood changes when John Wayne wanna-be Kevin Cox enters the track.
Sporting his trademark cowboy hat, Cox is known as the “Brooklyn Cowboy,” which must mean he hails from the southwestern part of the borough.
He’s a retired, mounted New York City police officer and former jockey agent, and he arrived at the tournament with as much confidence as cash, saying, “I’m the best you’ve ever seen. Even if I lose, I’m still the best.”
Clearly Mr. Cox prepped for the tournament by attending the Richard Sherman School of Public Speaking.
Next, we learn that the transcendental Christian Hellmers is skipping the tournament to attend the races at Royal Ascot. In one of the show’s most surprising moments to date, we see that Hellmers will actually fly on an airplane to England instead of relying on telekinetic willpower to beam himself across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile at Belmont, contest action starts with Bernier stumbling out of the gate with a last-place finish, the two Rotondos go down with a horse named Go Get the Basil (perhaps garlic would have worked out better) and the savvy Davis connected with Readthebyline, who the show listed at 10-to-1 odds but actually went off at 5-to-1. Welcome to “reality” television.
After seeing the cast do a lot of cheering for horses and hearing Cox talk about the mind games he plays, we find that Bernier and Beychok are floundering but Rotondo Sr. nails an 8-to-1 shot, using a cheering motion lifted from the University of Florida Gator chomp. Conte also clicks on a 2-to-1 shot to climb the leaderboard.
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Switching over to England, Hellmers heads to Royal Ascot with a Lego bowtie while accompanied by a woman with a haircut as strange as his bowtie.
Back at the contest, Bernier connects with his $40 bet on 14-to-1 shot to end the first day of the two-day tournament in ninth place, underscoring what Davis says about the tournament: “You don’t have to be perfect, you got to be right at the right time.”
We then learn that the Day One leader is Cox, who intends to play it cool on Day Two and save his prime plays for later in the card.
At dinner after the races, Team Rotondo pledges to “stick to their guns” with the next day’s picks and not waffle on their selections – more on this later.
Day Two starts with Cox trying to intimidate Bernier, and an unfazed Bernier expressing a desire to have Cox’s hat put up a certain part of the cowboy’s anatomy.
Moving on, to help them prepare for the day, Rotondo Jr. and Bernier have a Q & A session with Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez about pace in the hot weather, and the advice pays off as Rotondo Jr., after an “oh-fer” the day before, connects on a 40-to-1 longshot at Monmouth Park.
Team Rotondo then uses a shotgun approach in an attempt to climb the leaderboard. Dad and son both like the same horse and Davis chooses another. Son then convinces dad to play another horse so the team has three horses covered instead of two.
Son, though, changes horses in midstream. He opts against the 16-to-1 shot he was supposed to bet, saying he can either be a “hero or possibly disowned today.”
Think back to dinner, and you can guess what happens. Of course, the 16-to-1 shot that went uncovered won and dad lectures son with, “You’re not playing bingo. This is handicapping. That’s playing bingo. I’m so sick now, you have no idea.”
As the Rotondos stew over their missed opportunity and young Peter realizes he’ll be lucky to find slipper socks under the Christmas tree, the final race of the contest rolls around with Cowboy Cox whipping and driving on the lead.
Bernier takes a swing at catching him with an 8-to-1 shot, who has the lead at the top of stretch. But even with Team Rotondo cheering his horse on, Bernier’s pick tires in the final furlong. The loss drops Bernier to 35th place in the final standings.
Meanwhile, standing tall in the winner’s circle is Cox. Aside from the first-place check for $40,000, Cox also rode into the sunset with a spot in the NHC final.
The rest were left to regroup and toss some digs at Cox, including also-ran Conte, who closes the show with these words that mirrored his handicapping: “As the famous Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I shall return.’ ”
Hey, on a day when you confuse The Terminator with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, picking the right horse can be a heckuva challenge.
Until next time ... due to coverage of the Winter Olympics, "Horseplayers" will be on hiatus until Feb. 25.