This week’s Horseplayers takes us to the 2013 Triple Crown and introduces us to some new characters, including a cameo by yours truly!
We open at Churchill Downs with Peter Rotondo, Jr., still in his bowtie, but this time without the other two-thirds of his team. He’s alone in Louisville for the Derby, there in an official capacity as a media executive with the Breeders' Cup. He still plans to bet the day’s card with the team’s money, however. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Team Rotondo. We learned last week that Peter Jr. has the final say on the team’s bets anyway. He sits with a Churchill clocker named TKTKTK who touts him on Goldencents, but Peter says his heart and his money is staying with Orb.
Christian Hellmers is here, too. The Derby isn’t a part of the National Handicapping Championship Tour, so he isn’t in Louisville playing a tournament. Instead he’s betting some money from his backers. In a lovely scene set in a patch of grass near the track, Hellmers lays in the grass with yet another attractive female “friend” and teaches her all about how to pick horses. He says he’s not betting the favorite, Orb, and is instead backing a couple of longshots. “What do you know that everyone else doesn’t know?” she wonders. “They don’t study the game like I do,” he responds, confidently.
To be fair, Hellmers then explains that Orb could win the race, but that he didn’t see value in the odds he was being offered on Orb. That’s a legitimate stand to take. But the show certainly set him up this week to look cocky and foolish.
The first newcomer that we meet is a 23-year-old handicapper from Massachusetts named Matt Bernier. Matt got the racing bug the old-fashioned way - he went to the track on a lark and accidentally hit a 30-to-1 longshot. He started up with betting on horse racing as a hobby while he made his living in real estate, but soon found the money in handicapping was better than the money he made at his square job, so he decided to chase the dream and try to gamble for a living.
Bernier makes a point to tell us that he’s not a big-time player. He plays his own money, has no backers, and he’s playing to pay the rent. He points this out a few times during the episode, including during a conversation at Churchill Downs with our other new cast member, Michael Beychok, who is being interviewed at the Derby by a devilishly handsome journalist.
Beychok was the 2013 Eclipse Award winner for taking first place at the National Handicapping Championship, a title that earned him a million dollars. He’s at the Derby to play for the TwinSpires Players’ Pool, which he describes as similar to a mutual fund. Players with TwinSpires betting accounts contribute money to the pool, then a panel of top handicappers invest the pool (on Derby day it was about $160,000) into large-payoff bets like the Pick 6. Investors then split the winnings based on how much they invested. Beychok plans to use about half the money to chase the million-dollar guaranteed Pick 6, and says he feels strongly that they should push it through Orb in the Derby.
Bernier tells Beychok he’s backing Orb, too. He brags that he had Orb in January and got him at 75-to-1. Beychok asks him how much he has on him, and Bernier sheepishly says $30. I don’t understand why anyone would feel embarrassed about that. On Derby day if you wanted to make a few thousand bucks on Orb, you’d have need to invest a thousand dollars or more. And you’d still have to beat 19 horses! Bernier later boasts in a voiceover about his ability to pick winners so far in advance and get them at good prices. He should also be bragging at how little he has to risk to win so much. That’s what I suspect the viewers of this show are the most enamored with, seeing as how most of us don’t have backers or five-figure bankrolls.
By being the $30 guy, Bernier is our everyman. He’s setting himself up to be the hero of the show.
After a fake race call and some dramatic silent stares from our horseplayers during the race, they eventually throw the roses over Orb. Beychok hit the Pick 6 for the Players’ Pool, Rotondo scored $9,000 for his team, Bernier hit his future bet for $2,250, and Hellmers glumly explains to his backer “sometimes when you’re wrong, you’re really wrong.”
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
Next stop is the Preakness in Maryland, the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Here we catch back up with John Conte, who has brought a horse that he owns, Colossal Gift, to race in an allowance race on the undercard. Conte explains to us a little bit about what is involved in horse ownership. He tells us that the winner of a race gets 60% of the purse, and that it costs him $4,000 a month to stable, feed, care for and train the horse. First place in this race is worth about $40,000, which Conte desperately needs. He says he’s been struggling with Colossal Gift and needs to win soon or he may have to sell him. He also tells us that the horse is like his child, but that he bites him when he comes to visit. My human 3-year-old does the same thing to me.
The cast is all there on the rail with Conte backing his horse with him. Sadly, Colossal Gift finishes fifth, which isn’t enough to get the big money but still gets him $4,000 - one more month of bills.
Bernier shows up in Maryland with a bankroll. His friends back home have decided to back him for the Preakness. Bernier seems stressed about the arrangement, and a phone call with one of his buddies shows why. His friend tells him “we don’t want to just win peanuts” and that if Bernier doesn’t win they “just may change the locks” on him. It seems jovial, but Bernier isn’t laughing. He says it’s one thing to lose his own money, but when you’re playing with someone else’s, “well, that’s a different story.”
Hellmers is in town, too. This time without the headband and wearing a suit. He’s walking around the barns with his suit and talking about the spiritual connection he feels with some horses. Today, he’s got that connection with Goldencents, the horse he missed with in the Derby. “He’s like a brother,” Hellmers says. And he’s got five-thousand bucks left to bet on his brother from another mother.
Right before the race, we learn that Conte has made win bets on Oxbow and Mylute. Of course, Oxbow wins the race in impressive fashion and all of our horseplayers are standing shoulder to shoulder on the rail with befuddled expressions. All but Conte, who is jubilant. He’s a $4,000 winner, which he says means another month of bills and racing Colossal Gift.
The next scene is a familiar one to horseplayers everywhere. The guys stand around after the race and try to figure out what went wrong. Hellmers is despondent but still congratulates Conte. Beychok comforts Bernier by telling him there wasn’t anything he did wrong. Bernier, a look of dread on his face, shuffles off somewhere private to call the fellas back home. “I thought you knew what you were doing,” his friend admonishes. He isn’t jovial anymore. Bernier and his buds are the losers of $1,200. Hellmers takes solace in the fact that he at least knew Orb would lose. “It just goes to show you, there needs to be a bet where you can bet a horse to lose.”
The next stop is New York, Conte and Team Rotondo’s home turf, for the Belmont Stakes. Conte starts his handicapping with a tried-and-true technique - breakfast with a citizen of the backstretch. This particular insider is Rudy Rodriguez, who touts Conte on Palace Malice. Conte then takes that info to Team Rotondo, who say they like the horse, too. After all, it’s the Belmont, and this race is all about being bred for the distance.
When Hellmers and Bernier arrive, Peter, Jr. hooks them up with two attractive, young women - HRTV analyst Michelle Yu and Pimlico analyst Gabby Gaudet. Flirtatiously, Hellmers suggests that maybe they should all exchange information. So Yu and Gaudet start explaining how they pick winners to the boys, and viewers are treated to some of the soundest information about the sport of Thoroughbred racing so far in the series. The looks on Hellmers’ and Bernier’s faces are priceless as Gaudet and Yu school them on all things horse. Hellmers admits that horses aren’t really his thing. He explains his method is more about probabilities - he assigns his own probabilities to each entry then waits to compare that with the odds offered on the board. For as much as the show tries to make Hellmers into a comic foil, this is actually as solid a strategy for handicapping as there is. Bernier, too, admits that despite Hellmer’s eccentricities, he has the utmost respect for his skills. After the equine science lesson from Yu and Gaudet, Hellmers arrives at a $200 bet on Palace Malice at 15-to-1. He says “the odds are ridiculous” and he’s right.
Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Everybody cashes on Palace Malice for a good number except for Bernier. “The best horse doesn’t always win,” he says. Down but not out, Bernier ends the episode looking forward to the qualifying tournament for the National Handicapping Championship in two weeks. “I’m ready to roll.”