This is the year of the horse. Not last year. Not next year. HBO was guilty of premature exploitation when it bankrolled a bleak look at horse racing in 2012. Called it "Luck." Featured real actors, including Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, playing fictional racetrackers. HBO put it down before the first season reached the finish line.
Left three dead horses and a baffled audience in its cluttered wake. Now, here comes Esquire Network with a show called "Horseplayers" on Tuesday nights at 10. Real people looking and sounding like fictional gamblers, a community theater version of "Guys and Dolls" without the music. Or the wit.
Take John Conte. Please, take John Conte. Here's a New Yawker who uses a magnifying glass as big as a Frisbee to read the racing form. Gloats after he picks a winner, scowls after he picks a loser.
Picked Palace Malice in the Belmont last year and bragged, "I came here with a bunch of splinters and I'm leaving with a load of lumber." Tells the puzzled waitresses at the track kitchen he has a tip for them, "Lunch Hour, 12-to-1."
Damon Runyon is spinning in his grave, but you can't ignore Conte, because he won the National Handicapping Championship in 2009 by a whisker, breezing past 11 other guys by picking the winner of the last race.
What's he doing in the track kitchen, buying breakfast for trainer Rudy Rodriguez? And what's he doing in the paddock before a race, trading handshakes and opinions with jockey Johnny Velasquez? The show is crammed with questions, including the huge pot of gravy Mrs. Conte is stirring. Who is coming to dinner?
Most appealing, by two noses and a neck, is Team Rotondo. There's Peter Rotondo Sr. and his buddy Lew Davis, former currency traders, and Rotondo's son, Peter Jr.
Senior is 63 and now married to a 22-year-old named Liana, which makes her younger than her stepson. Secretariat is his all-time favorite horse, and he has a painting of the Triple Crown winner in his bedroom.
"My age," he confesses, "sometimes you might have trouble performing. I look at that portrait of Secretariat, and varoom, I'm fine. It's better than that little blue pill."
A little too much information there? Nah! Senior shows some photos from a few years back, wearing a full beard. Liana sneers. Why? "You look like a go-rilla," she barks. Charming.
Can they pick winners? Yes. Do they have the discipline to win a regional handicapping contest and grab a seat at the national contest in Vegas? Uh-oh. Junior talks his adoring father into betting the 1 and the 9. After he scans the post parade, he switches off the 1 and bets the 8t. The 1 horse wins by daylight at 16-to-1.
Senior grumbles and stalks around the nearly-empty clubhouse, looking as if he'd punch a go-rilla in the snout if he encountered one.
There are others, some humble, some arrogant, all with their own systems for picking winners, keeping the systems to themselves, gloating after picking winners, scowling after picking losers.
There's Matt Bernier, from Massachusetts. A real estate agent by trade, a horseplayer by instinct. He's 23, and the $400 buy-in at the regional contest is a big deal. He climbs to ninth place at the end of the first day and giddily calls his mom.
Timidly raises the prospect of playing horses full time. You hear Mom answer, "If you can make a decent living doing it, and that's something you love, go for it."
What would your mom say? "That's dumber than dirt . . . get your ascot home and start selling condos and look for a wife," or something similar.
There's Michael Beychok, a slick political consultant who won the championship and the million-dollar prize last year, picking the winner of the last race. Horse won by a nose and he finished one dollar ahead of the second-place gambler. Bought the horse. She went lame.
There's the spiritual Christian Hellmers, with a black headband keeping his head from exploding. He's a vegan, believes in aromatherapy, looks for negatives to rule out horses. Takes a spooky-looking date to Ascot, and if they didn't cash the exacta for weirdest couple, it was fixed.
Third installment brought us Kevin Cox, wearing a rumpled cowboy hat and the nickname, "The Brooklyn Cowboy." Tough, arrogant, former NYPD mounted policeman. What was he riding, a Clydesdale?
Handicaps the races the night before. Grabs the lead and then struts around the room handicapping the players. Matt says he'd like to shove that cowboy hat where the sun don't shine, which sets up some hostility down the line.
I'm guessing they will all meet again in the national championship showdown. Watch it at your own risk. Try to find someone to root for. Just don't tune in early and catch the final moments of "Friday Night Tykes."