High Stakes and Horseshoes

A gallop on the oddball track of Esquire TV’s Horseplayers

Bet on this weird cast: Cox, Davis, Rotondo Jr. and Hellmers. (Illustration by Jon Estrada)

Bet on this weird cast: Cox, Davis, Rotondo Jr. and Hellmers. (Illustration by Jon Estrada)

I say this with affection, having grown up going to the racetrack, having worked at the racetrack and having planned vacations around the racetrack: There are some high-test, rocket-powered weirdos at the racetrack.

Weirdos in the backstretch; weirdos at the windows; weirdos in dirty T-shirts camping out in the predawn hours to get a spot near their lucky picnic table/tree/patch of dirt; and weirdos in suits cramming sauerkraut-smothered hot dogs, two at a time in one bun, in their mouth day after day after day in the press box. (Absolutely a thing that happened.)

So when fresh-faced network Esquire TV made Horseplayers part of its burgeoning lineup it was, to someone who’s a fan of both horse racing and the kind of generational nutjobs who voluntarily wear seersucker, catnip. Horsenip. Whatever. (Also, please don’t look in my closet for the seersucker suit that isn’t hanging there as far as you know.)

The show follows several high-profile handicappers through a series of races at the tail end of 2012 and through 2013 as they vie to reach the National Handicapping Championship that went down January 24-26 at Treasure Island. So, uh, don’t look up the results of that. Or any of last year’s major stakes races.

What Horseplayers may lack in spoiler-proof tension, though, it delivers in trackside eccentrics. Which is a fancy way of saying “weirdos with bankrolls.”

Chief among them is Christian Hellmers, the spaced-out, crystal-wielding headband enthusiast whose presence at the track is the human equivalent of dumping a bushel full of Swiss chard inside a Burger King. Then there’s John Conte, with his shoe-polish black mullet and supply of jokes you aren’t quite sure if they’re racist or not; poor-man’s Kenny Powers Kevin Cox; and Team Rotondo—the Jeff Garlin clone Lee Davis, the Russian bride-toting Peter Rotondo Sr., and son Peter Jr., a bow tie-rocking media specialist with the Breeders’ Cup.

While the show does a decent job of establishing its cast of characters early on, it makes some curious choices in both structure and editing. The first episode opens with the 2012 Breeders’ Cup, which is traditionally considered the close of the racing season and has no bearing on the 2013 National Handicapping Championship. Ditto the second episode, which hits all three Triple Crown races that again don’t affect the handicappers’ road to the tournament.

It’s all a bit betwixt worlds, at times seeming aimed at the experienced fan and at others overexplaining pedestrian terms like “pick six” and “winner” and “horse.” No one’s going to mistake it for the reality-show equivalent of the brilliant, departed and wildly obtuse Luck, where showrunner David Milch’s attitude toward the casual race fan could best be described as: “Fuck you, look it up.”

That aside, with some refinement, Horseplayers could be, if the breaks all go right, similar to another show about a sport in decline widely considered to be the domain of shopworn degenerates: World Poker Tour.

That’s the one that helped nudge along the poker boom, even before Chris Moneymaker’s explosive win in the 2003 World Series of Poker. It did it through slick production and savvy packaging of the long, endless poker grind into digestible hourlong tournament segments.

Wisely, Horseplayers follows along in that formula by focusing on individual handicapping tournaments instead of the day-to-day slog. If it continues to sell, say, Cox as the pony-playing equivalent of Phil Hellmuth, or Conte as its wizened Doyle Brunson, it could tap into that same heady mix of reality, sports and easy money that put poker on the map.

And why not horse racing? It’s certainly got everything you need to appeal to the ironic contrarian hipster: insular, arcane language; a vintage soul; steeply declining popularity; a tarnished reputation; an intoxicating complexity that rewards the nerdy and studious; a preference for cocktails most people’s grandfathers stopped drinking by the time they hit their 40s. Put a Snidely Whiplash mustache on Orb or stage intermezzo unicycle races among the jockeys, and you’ve hit all the bases. It’s practically Etsy with pari-mutuel wagering.

This is your opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Don’t you want to be able to say you were into horse racing before it was cool? Or at least after it was really super cool but before it got kind of briefly cool again?

Horseplayers airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Esquire.

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