Decoding 'Luck': Bromance at the track
I really, really wish I could bet on the races on “Luck.” I’d be cashing in every Sunday. So far, every time a character has run a horse at Santa Anita, it has won. Not even Zenyatta was this predictable.
In this episode, Turo Escalante is trying to pull off another betting coup, but this time he’s doing it with Ace’s horse. OK, officially it’s Gus’ horse, but Ace gets on the phone and demands to know why Pint of Plain is entered in the next afternoon’s 7th race, with young jockey Leon Micheaux as the rider.
Turo explains that he just entered the horse to do the racing office a favor, because they needed five horses to card the race. He’s “90% sure” he’ll scratch, or pull the horse out of the race before post time. This is bogus, because if the race is reduced to four horses, the track will have to cancel show and trifecta betting, doing no one any favors.
Ace and Gus show up at the stable, like the heavies they are, and accuse Turo of entering Pint of Plain “because you’re looking to win a bet and using this kid to win a race.” An apprentice jockey, they calculate, will double the odds on their horse, but reduce its chances of winning. They demand one of the top five jockeys at Santa Anita.
“I’m trying to find out if you’re a gambler or a trainer,” Ace tells Turo. “If he ain’t off, I’m taking that horse to another trainer.”
“You don’t like getting caught with your pants down,” Ace replies.
Unlike the Forays, Ace has enough money to push Turo around. The next day, Gus hands Turo a $5,000 wad of cash -- to compensate Leon for losing the ride on Pint of Plain. It won’t be enough to make up for what he’d earn by riding a winner. Pint of Plain, who was purchased at the Goff Million Sale in Ireland, is entered in a stakes race. At Santa Anita, that means a purse of at least $100,000. The winning owner gets 60%, and the jockey 10% of that, so Leon probably stood to earn $6,000. He’ll also be missing the chance to ride Pint of Plain in even better-paying stakes races, if the horse lives up to its breeding.
"Here’s the top five jockeys,” Turo tells Ace, handing him two sheets of paper. “And here’s the top five white jockeys.”
They go into the bathroom to argue, and run into a tramp dressed like the woodcarrier on the cover of "Led Zeppelin IV" rummaging through a trash can. It’s Tony the Stooper, a guy who makes his living -- or at least makes it to the next bet -- by searching the track for mistakenly discarded tickets. First chronicled by Nelson Algren -- who gambled away his royalties from “The Man With The Golden Arm” at Sportsman’s Park outside Chicago -- the stooper is the carp to Ace’s shark, scouring the racetrack floor for the leavings of other gamblers. It’s a semi-living. I’ve heard of stoopers finding uncashed tickets worth hundreds of dollars.
At the Oasis Motel, Kagle the security guard shows up at Jerry’s and Marcus’ room, wearing a food-stained sweater. He’s been fired from the track for loan sharking and he’s a) trying to find out if it was one of the Forays who got him in trouble, and b) trying to borrow money.
“I don’t drop dimes!” Marcus shouts. “Even to parasitic humps.”
"I got tapped, Jerry,” Kagle begs. “If you loan me anything up to 10, I’ll pay you retail vig.”
The Code of the Grandstand, as I’ve always understood it, says that when you’ve got it, so do your busted-out friends. Kagle never lived by that code -- he exploited desperate horseplayers -- but Jerry is a gambler right down to his last nickel, so he peels off a thousand dollars, and tells Kagle: “Pay me back when you can.”
Marcus and Jerry get into another argument because Marcus has been reading Jerry’s diary and finds out he lost $286,000 trying to beat Leo Chan at poker. By dropping his caustic persona to care about a friend, Marcus is convinced he’s turned gay.
“I worry about you all the time,” Marcus tells Jerry. “‘Something’s gonna happen to Jerry. Who else worries about another male like that except a [gay man]?"
"Luck" has more bromances than the entire Judd Apatow filmography: Jerry and Marcus, Renzo and Lonnie, Ace and Gus, Joey and Leon, Walter and Gettin’up Morning. Let’s face it, people who spend all day grooming or betting on horses have often failed at intimate human relationships, so they need commiserants. A doctor examining Marcus for his stress-aggravated cardiomyopathy asks: “Do you have anyone you can talk to?” “A horse,” Marcus replies.
Ace’s interest in winning a horse race is not only pecuniary. He’s being pursued for a donation by Claire LeChea (Joan Allen) who runs a charity that arranges for prisoners to work with horses. Claire asks for $220,000. Ace gives her $367,000 -- he says 367 is his lucky number -- and asks her to the races, because what short, elderly gangster wouldn’t ask a character played by Joan Allen on a date?
Pint of Plain wins the race, but it may be the last race he runs. A horse ahead of him throws a shoe, barking Pint of Plain’s leg and exposing his cannon bone. The jockey doesn’t know what’s happening, but Turo winces throughout the race, clearly wishing the horse would pull up.
“That’s some wonderful horse,” Ace tells Turo.
"I pray he come out in one piece.”
Joey Rathburn bet on Pint of Plain and wants to give his winnings to his ex-wife, but can only reach her answering machine.
That night, Ace refuses to leave Pint of Plain’s side, sleeping next to his stable. Pint of Plain sticks his head over the door, nuzzling his owner. The gangster gets up and pets his muzzle. Jo the veterinarian, who is also keeping a night watch, witnesses Ace’s transformation from horse owner to horse lover.
“How are we supposed to pretend anymore it’s not his horse?” she asks.
-- Edward McLelland
Photo: Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman in "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti