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Decoding 'Luck': Murder on the high seas

March 19, 2012 | 11:26 am

Dustin Hoffman Dennis Farina Luck recap
As "Luck" fans have heard, there will be no second season of the best movie or TV show ever made about the world of horse racing. The show was canceled last week after a third horse died on the set. You can read my thoughts about that here. Now, the regularly scheduled recap of the penultimate episode of "Luck."

For the first time since the series premiered, I went to my local track and asked real gamblers what they think about it. David the Owl, who’s kind of like Renzo, in that he hangs around with small-time trainers, loves the series but thought it was ludicrous that the Forays won a $2.6-million Pick Six with an $832 ticket.

FULL COVERAGE: 'Luck'

Big Tom is pretty similar to Marcus. He’s a heavy guy who gets around with a cane. When we split a Pick 4 bet, I felt safe letting him hold the tickets. Where was he going? Big Tom thinks "Luck" shows too much of horse racing’s seedy side.

“I just hope people don’t watch the show and think that everyone at the track is like that,” he said.

I can agree with him when it comes to Ace Bernstein, because this is the episode in which the sliminess and amorality of Ace’s play to take over Santa Anita become apparent. It’s morning at the hotel, and Ace asks Gus about Nathan Israel’s whereabouts.

"Israel check in? Did we hear from the kid yet?”

It’s also morning on Mike’s yacht as he watches a fishing boat put out to sea. Onboard, men in wellies and overalls saw a body into pieces and toss weighted bags over the side.

Ace and Gus receive an email from Israel’s account, tendering his resignation and stating, “I’ve also decided to relocate, and am unavailable for further contact.”

Ace recognizes what it means: “They killed him, Gus.”

With Israel out of the way, Mike’s henchman Cohen proffers an envelope full of cash to a tribal official at the Indian casino.

“Our nickel,” Cohen says. “We’ll secure the votes in Sacramento.”

But Gus is watching the meeting on a casino security camera. So when Ace confronts Mike on the yacht, he hands him a DVD of the money crossing the table.

“I sent him to you,” Ace tells Mike. “I put the kid in harm’s way.”

Ace tells Mike he’s giving him a “pass” for the murder but is cutting him out of the syndicate trying to buy the racetrack.

This episode also sets up what’s going to be the climactic scene of Season 1: a race between Ace’s horse, Pint of Plain, and Walter’s horse, Gettn’up Morning, in the Western Derby, a stakes race with a $1-million purse.

The Western Derby seems modeled on the Santa Anita Derby, one of the major Kentucky Derby prep races. It’s held in early April, and the winner gets a guaranteed ticket to Louisville. The 20 spots in the Derby’s starting gate are assigned according to winnings, and the winner of $1-million race earns $600,000.

Before Gettn’up Morning can enter, though, Walter has to resolve a legal claim over the horse’s ownership. The heirs to the Kentucky farm where Gettn’up Morning was born claim Walter owes them money for the stud fee. Walter insists it was a favor from “The Colonel,” a mythical bluegrass who evokes Bull Hancock, the breeder who imported Secretariat’s grandfather, Princequillo.

A hearing board allows Gettin’up Morning’s entry, “with Walter Smith as owner/trainer,” but Walter’s legal antagonist continues to press his claim afterward, in the paddock. The young man tells the old trainer that if he doesn’t settle now, the case will get more attention as Gettn’up Morning wins more races. Walter blames the Colonel’s heirs for the death of Gettn’up Morning’s sire. After the Colonel died, the farm ran into trouble, so they insured the prize stud and claimed “it died in its stall.”

Walter shoves the young man to the ground. As Walter walks away, he hears, “That horse is mine, old man!”

Turo Escalante asks Rosie to ride Mon Gateau in an undercard race on Western Derby Day, because the horse is allowed to carry 112 pounds, and Leon, who last weighed in at 117.6, can’t make the weight. “Physically impossible,” Joey responds, after Leon offers to lose 6 pounds. Leon will, however, ride the horse “going forward,” when it carries higher weights.

It’s common for horses to carry different weights in different races. The assignment of weights is, in fact, the origin of the term “handicapping.” A 3-year-old entered in a race against older horses is usually allowed to carry 5 pounds fewer than its rivals. A horse that has not won since a date determined by the racing secretary also gets a break. Horses assigned heavier weights are handicapped with metal bars placed in the jockey’s saddle. 

Leon is so distraught he approaches Ronnie Jenkins in the Long Shot, asking him for “specialist stuff” -- weight-loss pills.

Ronnie, who will ride Gettn’up Morning in the Western Derby, refuses to introduce Leon to drugs.

“I won the Kentucky Derby,” Ronnie tells Leon. (Gary Stevens, the jockey-turned-actor who plays Ronnie, actually did win the Derby three times, on Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm.) “Where I’ve been since, this race I’ve got coming up is the biggest race. I ain’t about to mess up my luck" messing things up "for somebody else.”

When Rosie thanks Walter for giving her a chance on Gettin’up Morning, Nick Nolte has another one of those moments that makes his performance Luck’s most memorable. Most of the time, Nolte careens around the track groaning like he just got out of bed (which makes me wonder whether his horse’s name is a play on his demeanor). But here, he puts his arm around Rosie, and just for a flicker, looks as though he wants to kiss her. Then his paternal feelings reassert themselves and he squeezes Rosie’s shoulder.

Jo, who was kicked by a horse while examining its foot, is in the hospital undergoing an operation to save her baby with Turo. And Nick, one of the slimeballs who’s in with Ace on the racetrack deal, is revealed as a double agent. He visits Mike’s yacht, where Mike promises to “multiply Ace’s plan. Bring in slots and table games to put the sport on a sound fiscal basis.”

That’s not the only threat to Ace. Gus discovers that the man with the telephoto lens taking pictures outside the casino was a hit man from Chicago. Since we don’t see Claire in this episode, this gives Gus a chance to reclaim his position as Ace’s companion.

“From now on,” he tells his best friend, “you go nowhere by yourself.”

RELATED:

'Luck' canceled because horse deaths unacceptable

HBO cancels 'Luck' after third horse death

David Milch brought baseball bat to edit bay?

Full coverage and recaps of "Luck"

— Edward McClelland
twitter.com/tedmcclelland

Photo: Joan Allen, Dustin Hoffman, John Ortiz and Dennis Farina. Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti. 

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