02/06/2014 2:05PM

Steven Crist: 'Horseplayers' rates as overlay

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When I finally sat down this week to watch the first three episodes of “Horseplayers,” the reality-television show about handicappers that debuted on the Esquire Network on Jan. 21, I expected to despise it. An hour a week of listening to a bunch of bettors proclaim themselves the world’s greatest handicappers sounded like a recipe for headache and annoyance, and given the genre’s propensity for fakery and inaccuracy, I figured it would get everything wrong to boot.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The horseplayers of “Horseplayers” have plenty of annoying moments, but they also are a likeable and realistic reflection of the game’s most serious players, adding up to a watchable show with the potential to change public perception of those who wager on Thoroughbred racing and the attraction of the game.

What gives the show a framework, and a different take on horseplaying than a random wander through the grandstand on a Thursday afternoon, is its focus on handicapping tournaments. Over the 10 scheduled episodes, the cast competes in qualifying tournaments at tracks across the country, vying for seats in the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas each January. (Daily Racing Form is a founding sponsor of the NHC.) In addition to exposing this bright spot and growth area in the sport, the tournament storyline provides drama and continuity over the 15-month arc of the series.

The producers trust their material, and there is a refreshing lack of phoniness or attempts to sanitize the cast. They wisely chose not to pretend racing has a younger, hipper, or more diverse demographic than it really does. The eight tournament-circuit regulars who comprise the principal cast range in age from 23-year-old Matt Bernier to to 64-year-old Peter Rotondo Sr., but the group skews older (and far more hat-wearing) than what you usually see on television while making the valid point that tournaments may be attracting a new generation of participants raised on televised poker and reality-TV.

Bernier rings true as a young racing enthusiast. He’s scrabbling to get by – “It’s not like I’ve got thousands of dollars kicking around . . . I’ve got to worry about paying my rent” – and he’s trying to figure out if he can make a living and secure parental approval for making a career of being a tourney player. He’s drawn to it not for the gambling action but for the possibility he could make a living doing something he loves. He may not be the premium-brand-consuming, social-media-obsessed younger patron the racing industry imagines it should be recruiting, but he’s the kind of potential serious customer that racing needs to develop.

The group also includes two nicely contrasting recent NHC champions: the 2009 winner, John Conte, a wisecracking racetrack lifer straight from Central Casting who reads the past performances with a giant magnifying glass, and Michael Beychok, the 2012 winner who was a longtime Louisiana political consultant before his hobby became a second career and he became involved in ownership and aftercare.

The show does a good job of showing that these people genuinely like the sport of racing as well as the game of handicapping, and of explaining the concepts of value and probability. Tournament players in particular are not trying to pick the most winners or the most likely winners, but to come up with enough medium- to long-priced winners over a short period of time to outscore hundreds of other contestants in a competitive pressure-cooker.

Where it falls short is in telling us the players’ methods and the thinking behind their selections, which admittedly is a difficult thing to illustrate visually but which deserves more effort. A central figure is 36-year-old Christian Hellmers, who has finished second in the last two editions of the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge and manages a syndicate of investors. Too often the show succumbs to portraying Hellmers as a New Age goofball who says things like “I connect with the horses energetically – it’s kind of a spiritual vibe.” It’s entertaining, but minimizes the fact that Hellmers does a massive amount of homework and uses proprietary probability algorithms rather than quartz crystals as his primary source of parimutuel inspiration.

“Horseplayers” returns with the fourth of 10 scheduled episodes at 10 p.m. Feb. 25 after a two-week hiatus for Winter Olympics coverage. More cable systems than you might think carry the Esquire Network, and full episodes can be seen online at http://tv.esquire.com/now and through various streaming services. One piece of advice: If you’re going to catch up on the first three episodes as I did, this is not an ideal show for binge-watching: These “Horseplayers,” likeable as you may eventually and grudgingly find them to be, are best observed in small doses. Just like real horseplayers.