02/06/2014 3:05PM

Steven Crist: 'Horseplayers' rates as overlay


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.

Joe Rango More than 1 year ago
Going back a bit to a comment some time ago, the longshot Team Rotundo hit in the Belmont tournament was ridden by Shannon Uske, at Monmouth, not Kyla Stra in California. And, Monmouth WAS a contest track and that WAS a contest race. I too was sitting next to that table and certainly heard them as the horse held onto win. The producers did not stage that at all. The show is a good one. I was at the same table as Christian Hellmers' at the NHC a couple of years ago - he's intelligent, articulate and a gentleman. With Hellmers, Bernier and Conte, the show gives us a nice cross section of the players who love our game. Keep it up .People I know who have had no interest in horse racing now assure they're going to spend a day or two at Belmont this Spring, and coming to Saratoga next summer for the races and sales, which are the best two nights of the summer. And to almost quote Johnny Conte quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger, and not Gen MacArthur, I hope the show "shall return."
Tony Somma More than 1 year ago
I really enjoy the show, especially the new yorkers (even though I;m from Philly!!!). It reminds me of when I was a kid going to the track with my dad and grandparents....good times. yes the show has flaws, as do the characters, but it's interesting to watch and either root for or root against some of the players. I have no problem with their know it all attitudes...you have to have confidence to make those big bets, and besides, who hasn't met a know it all in line at any track across the country? Have you watched some of the so called experts on TVG? I love horse racing and this is really the only thing we have that somewhat showcases the sport and the various tracks, so I am all in as long as it is on. Never even heard of Esquire TV before this!
Phil More than 1 year ago
Great show, only show I watch on tv all week. All my friends watch the show around the country and we all love it. Look, there is a lot I could spot that is lazy editing, the races in the pouring rain at Saratoga in the far turn it's suddenly sunny, BUT all the garbage editing aside, I laugh for a solid hour straight every week watching these characters at the track. I mean, you have to love their passion for horseracing. Love all the comments that say they hate the show, then QUIT WATCHING, and go back to reruns of Gilligans Island on TV Land channel. Best show on tv by far right now, especially for people who have a life, jobs, career, family who could only make it to the track a few days a year. The show should be on prime time NBC on Monday nights.
ridgemax More than 1 year ago
The producers may think the general viewing audience - most of whom can't read the Form -- would be lost if the conversations got too technical, so they build up the competition and develop the characters. They've shown big hits and major clunks, fair enough, and as avid fans we have to remember we are cultists in a way and regarded by the outside world as somewhat warped. The show has its flaws and cannot hope to portray entirely the game's mystery and allure, but overall, so far it has been a decent "slice of life" documentary. I don't have to love it to watch it.
Vince Piscitelli More than 1 year ago
Two things that really, really, really bothered me in this show at least for the first episode and a half. I may eventually watch more and start liking it, but..... 1. Groupie Doll was NOT 20-1 when she lost the Cigar Mile in 2012. She was even money, 1.10-1 to be exact. Very bad make-up stuff. And I cannot believe the editors let this go. 2. Matt Bernier was NOT the youngest NTRA qualifier at 23. A good friend of mine, Mike B, at 21 was the youngest qualifier two years ago. The producers knew this because they interviewed my friend Mike for the show. Terrible, terrible, terrible. John Conte is for real. I played with him at the NTRA tournament which he won a few years ago. Good guy and the magnifying glass is for real. Vince P
Marlene MacFarlane More than 1 year ago
My husband and I also noticed that some of the race calls on this program were not by the original track announcer/callers i.e., if it was suppose to be Trevor Denman for Breeders Cup it wasnt, and the Derby scene for the Kentucky Derby, it was not Mark Johnson...Some races shown were not even the race they were actually watching. Also, I don't care if Mr. Rotondo robbed the cradle, what does that have to do with horse racing?? It is mentioned more than once! We spoke with one character out at Breeders Cup this year.... WoW talk about EGO!! Don't quit your real jobs LoL...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
All this from a man who charges $7.50 for a racing form. I attended the 2013 tournament @ Saratoga this past August and sat in the table next to the cast.They were colorful, friendly and having fun. We all are wagering against one another and who is to say what constitutes a horseplayer. They are as good as you or I. Has anyone watched the cast from the show "shahs of sunset" the episode when they go to DelMar. That was garbage. I'll watch anything devoted to the sport of horse racing. Let us all lighten-up and enjoy.
Amy Fowler More than 1 year ago
Can proprietary probability be explained?
Kenny More than 1 year ago
He either developed his own or paid someone to come up with formulas that use back data and a lot of factors ie pace, trips, speed fig, earnings etc etc to compute every horses probability for winning a given race and therefore create his own line for each race. Which he then uses to identify overlays and make his plays.
Boyd Cord More than 1 year ago
I liked the show because most of the guys know what they're doing. But I think Esquire only giving you their big hits just as they do on ESPN poker. Betting $5000 on Goldencents in the derby, I'd jump off a bridge. They bet similar to a pro buddy of mine. Big bets and nothing below xx-1. He swears he makes a ton of money, his daughter-in-law syas he hasn't worked in 15 years, brought his son a new truck. But I need that SSN check and pension coming in, and he won't have that but I will.
hardtolike More than 1 year ago
Gambling with other peoples money...and whiffing it= wall street and investment scum Blow-hard loudmouths and egotistical know it alls= NEW YORK,NEW YORK (nuff said) Never been happier to be broke-a__ me, going partners on a $28.80 rainbow 6 ticket only to go 5 outta 6. And how about that dudes bad rug? Well, its horse racing,it aint espn,and i'll be watching it as long as they have it on.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey Steve, The new Form in Magazine style is about 5 weeks old how are sales ? Is it here to stay? Sorry you lost me as a costumer the first one I purchased was missing pages that was my last . JBEAU