01/16/2014 12:33PM

Reality TV show 'Horseplayers' to show world of handicapping tournaments


The insular world of horse racing returns to the little screen on Tuesday nights, this time in a 10-episode reality-television series revolving around the world of handicapping tournaments, rather than the typical ontrack drama of jockeys, trainers, and horses.

“Horseplayers,” which premieres Tuesday night on the Esquire Network, will follow six major players on the handicapping-tournament circuit as they try to qualify for the National Handicapping Championship, the year-end tournament that is sponsored in part by Daily Racing Form .

Many of the faces on the show will be familiar to industry insiders and tournament players. One of the featured subjects is “Team Rotondo,” headed by Peter Rotondo Sr., a larger-than-life Staten Island, N.Y., resident whose son, Peter Rotondo Jr., is the vice president of media and entertainment for the Breeders’ Cup.

Another is Christian Hellmers, a former consultant to Betfair who has finished second two years in a row in the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, the biggest live-money tournament in the United States.

Many of the participants on the show appeared on a panel at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming in December. During the panel, excerpts of the episodes showed typical scenes from any racetrack or tournament setting: amped-up players pounding programs into their open palms or snapping their fingers as they will their bets to the wire while looking at televisions. Promos for the series show players sending fat rolls of $20 bills through the betting windows.

The program’s main personalities are all men, not surprising in a world in which 19 out of 20 tournament players are male, according to research recently conducted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, nor when considering Esquire’s target demographic: young men. The network was launched last year, rebranded from the now-defunct Style Network.

Still, women will play supporting roles, according to the network. Peter Rotondo Sr.’s, wife, the 22-year-old Liana Rotondo, participates in the team’s selection process, but promotional materials note that “given her inexperience and youth, her abilities are frequently called into question.” That doesn’t exactly augur well for a positive impression by females of the show.

The episodes also will follow Kevin Cox, a retired New York Police Department mounted officer and former jockeys’ agent who is now a professional handicapper. Cox’s wife, Nicole, also is a tournament player, and one year she missed out on a qualifying berth for the NHC by only 10 cents.

The series is the first racing-themed show to air on television since HBO’s gritty “Luck” – created by the television writer and horseplayer David Milch – was canceled in early 2012 after a horse used in the show died in a freak accident in the barn area at Santa Anita. The horse was the third used in the show to die, generating intense criticism from animal-welfare activists and pushing HBO to throw in the towel on production.

“Luck,” which was received well by critics and had gained a strong following from racing fans, was a fictionalized version of racing, while “Horseplayers” will be presented in the reality-television format, with all that the genre entails. Most of the featured players bring strong personalities and opinions to the show, which likely will be played for drama. As Peter Rotondo Jr. says in one clip, “Frankly, it’s an ego trip.”

The exception to all the screaming and boasting in the show might be Michael Beychok, a political consultant from Baton Rouge, La., who won the 2012 NHC. Video footage of Beychok and a small entourage watching the final race of that tournament is sure to be replayed during the “Horseplayers” series.

Beychok remains in a nearly monk-like state of contemplation as his selection begins making up ground in the race, only celebrating after his horse crosses the wire in front by a nose, making him $1 million richer.

Beychok later bought the horse who won the race and retired her to a farm in Louisiana.