Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Esquire Sheds Favorable Light on the Horseplayer

Symbolic of a fragmented industry with an identity problem, the only drawback to the fresh TV show Horseplayers is its relegation to the standard-definition "Siberia tier" of my Verizon FiOS system, somewhere between a 24-hour infomercial network and a host of curiously-named chick channels.

NJ Horseplayer:
Searching the TV tundra
for Esquire Network's
Otherwise, through two episodes, the Esquire Network has produced an excellent show that, at the very least, deserves placement on parent company's NBC Sports Network, already in its early stages bereft of mainstream sports programming (unless you give the NHL, English Premier League or "Total Gym for $14.95" the benefit of the doubt).

Give credit where credit is due.

Although real horseplayers have been pitched Horseplayers, the show, for what seems an eternity, the show's creators deserve much credit for providing a credible and extremely interesting snapshot into the lives of about a half-dozen real-word horseplayers.

Albeit sensationalized in parts (i.e. egregious factual errors on certain horses' odds, some seemingly staged emotions by the show's "stars"), Horseplayers is human interest, horseplayer education, sports and entertainment all rolled up into a need 60-minute weekly package.

The first episode had me riveted, introducing viewers to three sets of prominent horseplayers -- 2009 National Handicapping Championship winner John Conte, bohemian handicapping wunderkind Christian Hellmers, and New York trio "Team Rotondo," managed by Breeders Cup exec Peter Rotondo, Jr.  These are names I have seen on handicapping contest leaderboards and on Twitter at times, and Horseplayers gave a clearer glimpse of each of these characters.

In Tuesday night's second episode, I felt a little less "out of place," with the introduction of Matt Bernier, nearly half my age but himself a nascent NHC Tour player and handicapper.

Whereas the characters profiled in Episode 1 were high-bankroll types, most with decades of handicapping and betting experience and in the case of Conte $3,000 lighter after one tough afternoon at Aqueduct, Bernier got into the game in 2010, similar to my own experience.

It was interesting in a latter scene of Episode 2 to watch Bernier interact with the more-established handicappers at places like the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, where Bernier almost sheepishly referenced a $300 bankroll and made wagers (i.e. $30) more on par with my budget.

It was refreshing to see this on television, and equally important for people interested in getting into horse betting to know that a high-stakes player passes no judgement on another's wagering bankroll and is always willing to discuss strategy for the advancement of one's handicapping "education."

The top-level Horseplayer is open-minded, approachable, and interested in introducing people to this great game.

The overriding theme, as I see it, is that Horseplayers is the perfect tool for dispelling stereotypes of horseplayers as uneducated, low-hygiene degenerates who would bet their last cent on a race.  Maybe there are a few.

Rather, Horseplayers portrays a far savvier thoroughbred racing clientele -- Hellmers, the tech-savvy, analytic handicapper with an almost surfer demeanor; Conte, the son of an old-world bookmaker still willing to play the ponies and hit on HRTV analyst Michelle Yu; and Team Rotondo, a tight-knit family spearheaded by long-time horseplayer Peter Rotondo and his son, a bow-tied industry exec practically raised track-side.

Throw in the affable Louisianan Michael Beychok, the political consultant who claimed and subsequently retired the horse who solidified his 2012 NHC title, and Episode 3 teasers for the seemingly brash "Brooklyn Cowboy" Kevin Cox, and Esquire Network has found the winning formula for marketing the thoroughbred racing game in a unique and necessary way.

Face it.

Thoroughbred racing has few places to hang its hat and draw the public's interest.

Outside of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, very few Americans care about the sport, unless there's a Triple Crown involved.

Boutique meets such as Saratoga and Del Mar flourish for their resort appeal and extravagance, but otherwise the industry is a mish mosh of tracks with often thin and unappealing racing cards and weeknight racinos offering inflated purses for bottom-of-the-barrel fare.

The Breeders Cup is, hands down, the industry's best event, yet draws scant public or media recognition halfway through the NFL season and is probably even trumped by college football.

Horseplayers can achieve what marketers have long been unable to do to promote the sport to a broader audience, without the controversy of a show like HBO's Luck, which lived too short a life on the makers' insistence for using live racing action and was tied by media to the death of three horses during filming.

Much like the intriguing show Jockeys a few years back, Horseplayers penetrates peoples' homes (well, at least for those of us lucky enough to have, and locate, Esquire Network) and puts a face to the product, giving a bird's-eye view of people who support the sport financially.

A far more diverse, cultured and interesting group than one might expect, we the horseplayers keep the game going and are finally getting our due.


  1. Great article. I love the show. Hell era is a little bit too weird for my taste but he is a good character for the show.

  2. Thanks, Frankie. The diverse styles of the "stars" is what makes the show interesting, IMO.

  3. the industry needs to promote it's stars. there hasn't been a triple crown winner in years, but if one does happen what would the chances the owner take the horse on the road? probably nil. it's like the nba and michael jordon quiting after the 1st championship. there is no public interest, how many famous jockey's travel to tracks? the industry is segmented into individual tracks instead as a whole like the nba, nfl, mlb.