January 17, 2014 - 7:45 AM
By Gene Kershner
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Hello from Hallandale Beach on the east coast of Florida and the home of Gulfstream Park, site of this weekend's Eclipse Awards. I'm down here to emcee the annual ThoroFan Awards breakfast this morning where owner Cot Campbell will receive the second annual ThoroFan Award. Guest speakers at today's event include Brent Comer from Stonestreet Farm and caretaker of Rachel Alexandra as well as Groupie Doll's owner and trainer, Mandy Pope and Buff Bradley. It's sure to be a nice event in its first year as an official part of the Eclipse Awards. I'm the treasurer of the fan-based member organization which is a qualified 501(c)(3) entity.
Next Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. ET on the Esquire TV network (Time Warner - 114; Dish - 191; DirecTV - 235 and FiOs - 160), a new series called Horseplayers will premiere featuring handicappers across the country that culminates at last year's Breeders' Cup in a reality-based setting. Two of the handicappers featured in the new series include National Handicapping Contest champions John Conte (2009) and Michael Beychok (2012). I had the fortune of introducing Beychok last January at the inaugural ThoroFan Awards event. He won the 2012 NHC by a single dollar in the last race of the competition and subsequently purchased and retired the horse that brought him the handicapping crown.
The Esquire network is a joint venture between NBCUniversal and the Hearst Corporation, and was formerly known as the Style network. The show takes you from Churchill Downs to Saratoga to Santa Anita, and each episode follows a group of handicappers as they travel the country in search of instant riches – and compete for the title of America’s top handicapper. One of the handicappers on the show is Peter Rotondo, 38, a Vice President - Media and Entertainment for Breeders' Cup Ltd. I caught up with the stylish Rotondo earlier this week and had a little Q&A session about the new show, which also features his father, Peter, Sr., as one of the handicappers in the cast.
Post Time: Tell me how the show came to be and were you part of the group that initiated the idea?
Rotondo: I qualified for the 2012 NHC and went to Vegas with my Dad and his best friend, Lee Davis. Bryan Pettigrew and Keith Chamblin from the NTRA were hosting a production company who was interested in Horseplayers and the NHC. Long story short – they mic'd us up (and a few others) for the weekend, created a sizzle reel. They pitched it to various networks and Esquire bought it and greenlit the pilot. The pilot turned into a 10-episode series!
Post Time: What was your first reaction when approached to be part of the show and the tie-in to your position at the Breeders' Cup?
Rotondo: My first reaction when the show became a "reality" was nervousness. I'm not exactly someone who wants to be in front of the camera (though everyone I know reading this just rolled their eyes), I'm comfortable behind the scenes in the TV landscape (as my role has been for many years working with ESPN and NBC). On the other hand, my Dad and Lee are made for TV, so I was going to do whatever I could to make it happen! As far as a tie in to work at the BC, I cleared with Senior Management and they were very supportive. Most of the 'work' was on the weekend, so didn’t really interfere too much with my day to day job. Plus, I think the more exposure we can bring to the game the better we're all off and being close to the project made more sense than distancing myself from it.
Post Time: What’s something that viewers will be surprised about when they see the show?
Rotondo: Hmm…good question. I'm not sure. I think the hardcore fans of racing will like it to a point – I think they'll want to see more handicapping strategy and wagering but the "reality" is that the show needs to develop the characters before trying to explain handicapping and betting in detail. If the show takes off, you'll see a lot of wagering and handicapping discussion. I think the casual fan or reality television viewer that knows nothing about racing may find the characters interesting and, for the most part, the show destroys the stereotype of the typical horseplayer.
Post Time: What was it like being on a reality show with your father?
Rotondo: It was a blast. He's 64 but has so much energy so I know my role was to just get him going so he can be himself! He and Lee are truly crazy and everyone who spends time with them has a hysterically good time. I hope that comes across through the season – they put the "real" in "reality!"
Post Time: What will appeal to the casual sports fan when watching the show?
Rotondo: I think the risk and reward will appeal to the casual sports fan. I'm not sure the show is geared toward "sports" fans – maybe more toward the gamblers (think World Series of Poker) and at the same time the rest of the public as the curtain is lifted on something many people don't know much about.
Post Time: Out of the cadre of handicappers on the show, who impressed you the most?
Rotondo: Not to disparage my fellow cast-mates but Christian Hellmers impressed me the most. He is an amazing handicapper, exceptional tournament player and literally operates on a different "level" than everyone else. You'll have to watch to see what I'm talking about!
Post Time: Is there talk of a second season?
Rotondo: Not yet. I'm just trying to get thru Tuesday!
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.