Tuesday, July 2, 2013

NHC Goes Hollywood

Let's face it.

Mention that you're a member of the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) Tour to just about anyone and enjoy the blank looks and quizzical stares.

Admit it, you've been there.

"N-H-huh, what?"

It's hard to explain to your family, friends and colleagues (or even the frequent visitor to your local track or OTB) in 60 seconds or less why you're spending the day at the racetrack or on some obscure online website playing in something called a handicapping contest.

Those of us "in the know" understand the value of and hard work put into winning only 1 of 500 seats to a prestigious (albeit little-known) annual national championship in Las Vegas.

Well, the Tour, presumably seeking to increase its recognition and draw members to what is already an underground community of $50 annual fee subscribers, is taking its act to the small screen.

Esquire Network, spawned from the men's magazine and set to debut on September 23 somewhere on your cable system (since sophisticated adult male TV viewers don't have enough "guys" networks to chose from already - wink wink), will feature the NHC in a fresh show called Horse Players.

NJ Horseplayer, portrayed by
someone far more charismatic and
with a fuller head of hair and greater
fashion sensibility, rolls up to
Monmouth Park for the July 7
NHC Qualifier
The network bills Horse Players, an hour-long series produced by the makers of compelling "Jockeys" series, as taking place in "the high-stakes world of professional horse race handicapping, where the only thing bigger than the bets are the characters placing them."

I guess that eliminates me from contention from D-list reality TV stardom, since I'm not high stakes, a professional horseplayer OR a big character (physically or personality-wise), but I'm really excited by the prospect of expanding the NHC Tour and our annual championship beyond its relative obscurity.

Putting horseplayers' faces to names and pre-packaging handicapping contest content with actual race footage could become must-see TV and buck the perception of horse racing as musty TV.

Not A Big Sports Network, But At Least Someone's Trying

I have long expressed the need for the NHC Tour to drastically improve its publicity and draw more horseplayers into a sport perceived by most as an old guy's game.

The NHC Tour concept bucks that notion, but either lacks the resources or direction to dismiss such perception and its relative obscurity.  The NHC Tour's "News" page, for instance, is bereft of any reference to the big Esquire Network announcement; one has to burrow down to the News & Media>Press Releases link to find the canned press release, picked up a scant few -- i.e., Daily Racing Form, HANA.  The Tour, unless I missed it or am following the wrong Twitter account, didn't even tweet the announcement.

Getting the NHC Tour brand on TV is akin to hitting the jackpot, in my opinion -- not only for the Tour and handicapping contest circuit itself, but horse racing in general.  Racing's fragmented leadership needs to be on the bandwagon and promote the hell out of Horse Players.

Recapping Geelong-St. Kilda
I'm not sure Esquire Network, owned by NBC Universal, is the venue to raise the NHC Tour's profile to the heights of the World Series of Poker, but it's a start in addressing the identity crisis for an outfit that hosts a $1.5-$2 million (yes, the dollar amount IS correct) annual championship, and I guess Esquire will be in more TV households than horseplayer mainstays (but fee-based) TVG and HRTV.

NHC Contest Circuit --
more interesting than even
Chuck Norris
The first thought that came to mind when I saw the initial tweet about Horse Players was why the show couldn't find its way to the main NBC Sports Network, which, let's face it, is not packed with the most compelling programming.

Now, NBC Sports Network is not quite ESPN circa 1979 with Australian Rules Football and Munster hurling, but unless you're a big fan of the Tour de France, Major League Soccer or reruns of Chuck Norris' Total Gym for $14.95, NBC Sports Network is probably not for you.

Creators Investing Millions?

Placement on Esquire Network rather than the higher-profile NBC Sports Network initially made me cautious that Horse Players will be a low-cost, perhaps low-brow perspective of degenerate horseplayers, mirroring the portrayal of some hapless fictional bettors in HBO's short-lived "Luck".

However, I stumbled upon a message board discussion about Horse Players, where a poster cited an interview of an NHC official noting that NBC is putting "millions" behind the show.  I have no knowledge of TV show production costs by any means, but a 7-figure investment (if true) would signal the creators see the value in televising horseplayers' quests to make it to, and win in, Las Vegas.

Check out Michael Beychok winning the 2012 NHC and you'll see why televising human reactions to neck-and-neck horse races with a huge contest purse at stake will prove far more dramatic and compelling TV than watching a bunch of Generation Me'rs in sunglasses and outfitted like the Unabomber playing Texas Hold 'Em, at least in my humble opinion.

Doing so at a much richer production value than grainy cell-phone quality video is a huge plus.

In addition, considering Esquire Magazine's position as a "guide for men who want to live a fuller, richer, more-informed and rewarding life," I suspect that Horse Players will shed more light on the lesser-known intellectual and social aspects of the handicapping contest circuit.

Now, fellow horseplayer Red Rock or Bust -- an intellectual to the highest degree -- made no mention to me of on-camera appearances during last weekend's Belmont Handicapping Challenge, where film crews were gathering footage of perhaps more interesting people, but it seems the show's creators will be touring several contests nationwide, including Monmouth Park, to chronicle the build-up to NHC XV next January.

If it happens to be this Sunday's NHC qualifier at Monmouth Park, maybe my stardom awaits.

Seriously, Though...

With or without me, I hope that Horse Players becomes a raging success not only for the nascent TV network and its financial commitment to the project, but also the NHC Tour itself, which certainly could use the notoriety midway through its second decade in existence and offers tremendous entertainment value to those of us who participate on a regular basis.


  1. The Esquire folks seemed pretty narrow in their focus at Belmont -- kept their lenses trained mostly on Beychok and his posse, the other previous NHC winner John Conte, plus a few women players here and there. I think the one time I got camera time that wasn't background or a photobomb was when I was chatting with MB -- they showed no interest in the vast majority of the contestants.
    Man did some of those guys in the Beychok posse whoop it up during races -- I swear after day 1 I thought their whole table had to be 1-5 on the leaderboard. But I heard they were rooting for each other and/or just being overly enthusiastic for the show.
    I'm not sure what they'll do at Monmouth,maybe they'll follow a couple predetermined people again or maybe they'll branch out. You can probably get away with not shaving and wearing your ripped "Greasy Tony's" t-shirt, circa 1991.

  2. No doubt I'm going to wear some of my tackiest threads on Sunday.

    Your Belmont observations make the filming sound a little contrived. Come on..not EVERY race is worth whooping it up over. You know I root for you and the folks I know in these tourneys, but unless it's a stretch duel with a contest on the line, I'm not going to dramatize the situation. But I guess everyone's personality is just different.

  3. it will be interesting to see the end result in terms of how they edit and what they play up, but the filming and hamming it up definitely seemed at least a little contrived.
    But, I guess that's reality TV for you -- oftentimes disconnected from reality.

  4. Glad you enjoyed, John M!

    Usually Terry and I play outside the 3rd-floor "tele-theater" near the bank of TVs; be sure to stop by and introduce yourself.