Decoding 'Luck': Anorexic jockeys, Nick Nolte's feelings
This episode of "Luck" was written by Bill Barich, author of "Laughing in the Hills," one of the most eccentric horse racing books ever. (To cope with his mother’s death from cancer, Barich goes to Golden Gate Fields, outside San Francisco, to lose himself in handicapping and Renaissance literature.) Barich’s episode begins with trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) walking into the track office with his condition book. A condition book lists the races scheduled for the upcoming month, along with the purses at stake.
Walter enters his young prospect, Gettn'up Morning, in a 3-year-old maiden special weight race — a race for horses that have never won but which have enough potential to be protected from a claim. As jockey, he lists Ronnie Jenkins.
At the post position draw, a track employee announces each horse’s name, then shakes a bottle and draws out a numbered bead corresponding to a stall in the starting gate.
“Any preferences to post?” a sportswriter asks Walter.
"Sure as hell don’t want the rail,” he grumbles.
No trainer wants the rail for a first-time starter. A rookie horse is liable to get spooked by all the horses to his outside, crowding him toward the rail. To Walter’s dismay, Gettn'up Morning draws the 1 post.
As Turo Escalante watches Ace Bernstein’s horse work out, he remarks, “Switching them leads good.” Switching leads is a skill necessary for success on an oval racetrack. When a horse is running on the backstretch, it leads with its left leg. Once it turns into the homestretch, the horse needs to change its gait, leading with the right leg. Ace’s horse rears up when confronted by a loose horse bolting around the track but doesn’t throw his own exercise rider.
“He work like whatever you pay for him,” Turo tells Ace (Dustin Hoffman). “What happened was, he showed he has a good mind.”
Ace is trying to make a bigger score than winning a horse race, though. At a board meeting of whatever semi-legitimate business he heads, he thanks his employees for their work “while I’ve been away,” then recommends the purchase of 5% plus one share of Santa Anita — ensuring that the Securities and Exchange Commission will make his move public. (We later learn that Bernstein was locked up for “possession for sale” of 4 kilograms of cocaine. What this has to do with his legitimate business is not explained.)
Despite losing a two-way shake to claim Mon Gateau, Marcus, Jerry, Renzo and Lonnie are still determined to acquire the horse — and return him to Turo’s barn. So they buy him from the new owners for 25 grand, plus a $7,500 fee for the cowboy trainer — a pretty nice profit on an $8,000 claim he had to feed for only three days.
Marcus counts the bills out of a laundry bag and delivers them to the track’s paymaster in a paper sack. Mon Gateau is led back to Turo’s stable, where Turo explains the owner-trainer relationship to the four gamblers, who’ve named their one-horse stable Foray — either for Four Amigos (Renzo’s idea) or Four A-holes (Marcus’).
They’ll pay $85 a day for training, $125 a month for a blacksmith, $75 a month for a dentist, $60 for carrots, $125 for acupuncture. In exchange for that, they’ll have no say in how the horse is raced.
“You should expect I do what I do and not you,” Turo tells them.
Trainers can’t stand owners. I’ve seen trainers turn around and walk away from owners who were expressing unsolicited opinions about a horse’s handling. Not all trainers hate owners. Some tolerate them. But in general, they believe an owner’s role is to put up (the money) and shut up.
However, Turo allows the Forays to pet Mon Gateau and gives them each a carrot, telling them, “Keep your hands open.” As their horse approaches, the Forays stare at the carrots in awe. Even a trainer as cantankerous as Turo will not deny the bond between man and horse. Although horse racing may seem unsentimental, even cruel, it’s not just a business. Everyone involved loves horses and wants to partake of their speed and power.
The jockeys are having problems. Leon faints in the steam room. Jockeys can weigh no more than 113 pounds. Apprentices must meet an even more anorexic standard: 110. To make weight, they starve, steam and purge themselves, and even “flip,” or throw up, their meals. Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero lost a kidney because of his dietary abuses; he survives on dialysis. In the doctor’s office, Leon confesses that his breakfast consisted of orange juice. Then he goes for a run in the hills around Santa Anita, wearing a heavy sweat suit.
Ronnie Jenkins is thrown from a horse and breaks his collarbone — “I break this collarbone more than I get laid,” he curses. Riding racehorses is one of the few jobs in which an ambulance follows you every time you work. Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte, was paralyzed in a spill. Since 1940, 140 jockeys have been killed on the job in North America.
Ronnie is told to take four to six weeks off and is prescribed pills. But he wants a more numbing analgesic. Soon he’s snorting cocaine in his car outside a liquor store, then going in for a pint of Cutty Sark. Cocaine and amphetamine abuse are exceedingly common among jockeys, who sometimes use the drugs as weight-loss aids. Last year, 24-year-old Michael Baze was found dead in his car outside Churchill Downs, before he was scheduled to appear in court on cocaine charges. Baze’s father was also a jockey and an addict.
Ronnie’s accident means Walter needs a new rider for Gettn'up Morning. So he calls Rosie in Portland. But before he calls, he rehearses exactly what he’s going to say, wonders whether he’s calling too late and even questions the propriety of his interest in the young woman, finally convincing himself that he’s “supposed to keep an objective look out on her prospects for success.”
Not even Walter knows whether his feelings toward Rosie are paternal, professional or an old man’s crush. Neither do we, thanks to Nick Nolte’s performance as a barely verbal man who keeps his emotions so deep inside that he’s completely befuddled when they approach the surface.
— Edward McClelland
Photo: Nick Nolte in a scene from "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti.