Christian Hellmers wore what he always wears when he watches California Chrome: a black top hat, a sequin suit jacket with the horse's name on the back, a bow tie made out of black and white Legos, and a white nasal strip with the words "Cali Chrome" on it.
He wore it in his house, when he watched the Preakness on TV, he wore it at the Kentucky Derby, where he stood in the winner's circle with the owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, and he wore it Saturday, when his math and his intuition dictated that California Chrome only had "about a 33 percent chance of winning."
Hellmers, 37, a Californian, is one of the closest things horse racing has to a savant. This year's Horse Player World Series champion, the prime-time handicapper has been betting on horses since he was 14. He even has a reality series to prove it: Hellmers is one of the major players on "Horseplayers," which airs on Esquire channel.
"This game is not for everybody," he said. "You have to have a Jedi mind-set. You have to be able to feel uncomfortable. It's risk. It's about being willing to lose and let go."
He has spent about 10,000 hours honing his craft, he said, and lost many an allowance as a kid, before he got the kinks out. The game takes patience and understanding, "and I take it very seriously," he said. "It's been a really spiritual journey, because I have no one to blame but myself if I lose, and I have no one to celebrate with when I win."
Before the race Saturday, he crunched the numbers. The public, he explained, had Chrome's odds at about 60 percent, while he thought it was about 1-in-3. The Belmont Stakes is an arduous 1 1/2 miles, he said, and the rest of the explanation? Well, that's where the savant part comes in.
"There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to win the Kentucky Derby," he said. "Whether or not he's going to go this far is a whole other ballgame, because this is like going from a marathon to running an ultramarathon."
He wasn't going to bet on Chrome to win, Hellmers said, but he was considering betting him to finish in the top three. Betting on him to lose -- a move with the biggest possible payout -- "is tempting," he said. But he couldn't do it.
But then why the jacket? The top hat? The nasal strip?
Well, because sometimes it's not about the numbers.
"He's got the right mind, of a champion," Hellmers said of Chrome. "He showed at an early age that he was willing and able to overcome adversity. And then he stepped into greatness in such an early time in his 3-year-old year."
A believer in destiny (though "it's a moving target, there's still free will," he said), Hellmers added that "it was no coincidence that [Chrome] has those owners and that trainer. They're awesome people and compassionate people and they deserve it."
So no, if he does place a bet, it won't be the one that could net him the most cash. Not this time. "Sometimes," said the man who has staked his livelihood on the numbers in his brain, "it's not about the money."