01/20/2014 1:53PM

NHC and reality-show premiere make it a big week for horseplayers


It’s a great week to be a horseplayer. And it has nothing to do with the racing itself. Sure, tracks will be running from coast-to-coast and there will be plenty of fun stuff to bet on. But this week is actually about you, the bettor. Things kicked off last weekend with one of my personal favorite moments of the year – a gambler getting an Eclipse Award. Alongside Wise Dan, Todd Pletcher, and Ken and Sarah Ramsey, there was last year’s NHC winner Jim Benes receiving racing’s most prestigious trophy.

And by the end of the day on Sunday, we’ll know who’ll be getting a trophy at next year’s Eclipse Awards event. The NHC festival kicks off on Thursday with the Last Chance Qualifier at the Treasure Island in Vegas. At least five final seats will be given away in a one-day version of the NHC format. I don’t have any inside information, but I predict a female competitor will win.

On Friday, it’s the big dance – three days of pari-mutuel insanity with the best horseplayers in the country fighting tooth and nail. I’ll be on hand to cover the proceedings and I’m psyched to feel the energy in the room as the starting field of approximately 480 players gets winnowed down to 50, then 10, then 1.

Those aren’t the only interesting events going on in the world of handicapping this week. On Tuesday night, the reality television show "Horseplayers" debuts on the Esquire Network. If you play the game regularly, you’re going to want to check local listings and at least make sure you DVR this sucker.

The show follows a group of noted contest players – including two former NHC champs – as they travel around the country, play in tournaments, and generally do what horseplayers do: make money or have fun trying. I got a chance to chat with one of the stars of the show, Kevin Cox, aka The Brooklyn Cowboy, last week. I thought Cox, famous for not being shy, might give us some good info about how it all goes down on the show.

“People think this is going to be like watching The World Series of Poker, but it really isn’t,” Cox explained, “because they’re delving more into the racetracks we go to, the things we do. The settings are incredible: New Orleans, Saratoga. There are ample opportunities to show side stories about the history. They don’t want it to be just a bunch of guys scribbling in the Racing Form; that would be bad TV. So they delve into our personal lives.”

I was curious if – in established reality TV fashion – we might see some conflicts along the way. Cox told me, “There are some fireworks at times, but in the end, it’s all pari-mutuelly based. It’s you against everybody else in the contest room. But these guys in the show, they’re sitting closest to you, so invariably, in your head, it’s you against them right off the bat. What better way to build your ego than to beat a past NHC champ like [Michael] Beychok or [John] Conte, or especially a guy like Christian Hellmers.”

I had to take the bait – what did he mean, “especially a guy like Christian Hellmers.” I know that Hellmers, a respected contest player, has a laid-back California vibe that could possibly clash with Cox’s brash, New York-centric manner. But I wanted to get a little preview.

Cox, for once, was tight-lipped. He just smiled and told me I had to wait and watch the show. I recommend you do, too.