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Wednesday, January 22, 2014
'Horseplayers' got it right

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

After the short-lived HBO series "Luck" depicted horse racing as a game filled with conmen, connivers and degenerates, the sport might have feared that TV's latest foray into the game would do more of the same. "Horseplayers," the series that debuted Tuesday night on the Esquire network, could have easily gone for the lowest common denominator. After all, the stereotypical racetrack gambler seems to be down-and-out, pushing 75 and wears a stained polyester sports jacket that last fit him in 1974.

Instead, the "Horseplayers" cast consisted of well-scrubbed, articulate and cerebral individuals who know the only way to win is to be smarter than their opponent, the fellow gambler. In the real world, that's exactly the way most sophisticated horseplayers come across.

The "Horseplayers" cast consisted of well-scrubbed, articulate and cerebral individuals who know the only way to win is to be smarter than their opponent, the fellow gambler.

In the first episode we meet Team Rotondo, which consists of the father and son pair of Peter Rotondo Sr. and Jr. and their friend Lee Davis. Davis and the elder Rotondo are former currency traders and, though it is not mentioned in the show, Rotondo Jr. is a marketing executive with the Breeders' Cup. The younger Rotondo is particularly natty, showing up everywhere wearing a bow tie. He looks like he just came from a party in the Hamptons, and certainly not someone who hangs out at gritty Aqueduct.

Cast member Christian Hellmers comes across as a bit odd, but not in a bad way. He's just eccentric. The episode follows him through the 2012 Breeders' Cup handicapping contest at Santa Anita, where he shows up with a lovely young woman at his side and a laptop he uses to crunch numbers like a Wall Street analyst. Hellmers is on fire in the contest, but ultimately finishes second when he comes up with Fort Larned in the Classic but is passed by another contestant who bet the race more aggressively. With Zen-like calm, he approaches the wins and losses the same way, with virtually no emotion. Early on, you get the idea: Hellmers is a cool customer, and that he's smart.

The final cast member unveiled on the show is New Yorker John Conte, and he comes closest to fulfilling the horseplayer cliche. Conte looks like something right out of the Sopranos and if you didn't know him you might fear that he's going to break John Velazquez's kneecaps if he gives his horse a bad ride. (In real life, Conte doesn't downplay that image. We once had a good natured argument and he told me his friend "Frankie Cement" might pay me a visit).

But don't judge this book by its cover. I've known Conte forever and he's not only a great handicapper but a sweetheart. To its credit, the show never tried to make him out as someone who just walked over to Aqueduct from John Gotti's old hangout, the nearby Bergin Hunt and Fish Club.

Despite any flaws, the show succeeds in making the idea of playing the horses wholesome and fun and, quite possibly, rewarding.

Three more characters will be unveiled in the weeks ahead, Kevin (The Brooklyn Cowboy) Cox, Michael Beychock and Matt Bernier. Every show needs a villain and, based on the sneak previews of upcoming episodes, it looks like that might be Bernier. We get the idea that he's more than a bit on the arrogant side and, that at age 23, need to do some growing up.

As is the case with any show of this type, there was the occasional screw-up, whether intentional or not. They had Team Rotondo putting all their betting eggs in the basket of Groupie Doll in the 2012 Cigar Mile and listed her odds at 20-1. Based on the amount they bet and the odds listed for Groupie Doll, the implication was that the Rotondo group was going to walk away with a fortune had she won and then suffered a heart-breaking defeat when she lost by a nose. The problem is she was not 20-1 but the even-money favorite in the race.

Despite any flaws, the show succeeds in making the idea of playing the horses wholesome and fun and, quite possibly, rewarding. They even make Aqueduct look sort of nice, which has to be one of the great achievements in television history.

If anything, these guys are too nice, too sophisticated, too likeable. It's easy to like the show if you are one of them and play the horses, but the man on the street might be bored once figuring out that there's nothing sleazy about this bunch. Let's hope not. "Horseplayers" deserves to go the distance.