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Decoding 'Luck': Flirting with horses -- and disaster

February 20, 2012 |  7:05 am

In the fourth episode of “Luck,” we find our newly rich quartet of gamblers, the Forays, out on the apron at Santa Anita at 7 a.m., watching that racetrack ritual known as the morning workout. They’re looking for a fast half-mile blowout -- or a crippled horse -- that the afternoon bettors and OTB players won’t catch.  

Turo Escalante, who is working out a few of his horses, sees his new owners and accuses them of cramping his style. 

"This is our regular hangout,” Marcus spits back, reminding Escalante that this early-bird research led to the Pick Six win that allowed them to purchase Mon Gateau.

In horse racing, the odds are set by the gamblers, not the house. The more money bet on a horse, the lower its odds. It’s a system known as pari-mutuel wagering, after a French term meaning “among ourselves.” As a result, handicapping information becomes less valuable as it becomes more widely known.

In the 1970s, Andrew Beyer invented the speed figure, a numerical rating that allows handicappers to compare races run at different distances and on different surfaces. At first, Beyer was able to turn a profit by betting on his numbers. Then he wrote a book -- "Picking Winners"  -- explaining his system. And he began selling his figures to the Daily Racing Form, which now publishes them as part of every horse’s record. Beyer became a devotee of “trip handicapping” -- studying race tapes and taking notes on the horses’ performances. Which is what the Forays are doing.

Also watching the horses is stuttering jockey agent Joey Rathburn.

"Is he gaining weight?” Escalante asks Rathburn, referring to Leon Micheaux, who fainted from hunger in last week's episode.

“That kid is rigorous with his diet and his exercise,” Rathburn assures Escalante.

As the intermediary, an agent has to nag his jockey clients about their habits, while also assuring the trainers that his clients aren't a problem. And because they shuttle between the stables and the jockey’s room, agents are often the best source of gossip at the track. Racing journalists love to hang around agents. That’s why Rathburn (Richard Kind) is an important character, even though he doesn’t own, ride or train a horse.

“This is a zero-sum game,” he reminds Leon. “You either make weight or you don’t. You’re on the horse or you’re not.”

Leon heads back into the hills, in a sweatsuit and a wool cap. Eventually, he doubles over in exhaustion. His still-maturing body may not be built to sustain itself at 113 pounds.

Still looking for money to buy Santa Anita, Ace Bernstein meets with Mike, a British millionaire played by Michael Gambon, on his yacht.

“Bring in casino gaming,” Ace explains. “Minority participants, with their minority participation. I take no less than 51%; you want a piece, it comes out of their 49.”
Now that Jerry has half a mil, he’s using the money to go after his poker-playing nemesis, Leo Chan. At the card room, Leo gets inside Jerry’s head, taunting that raising the stakes makes him “almost a man.” Jerry then folds, but when he sees that Leo had been bluffing on a 6 and a 2, he swears so loudly the dealer calls “floor.” They agree to continue the game in the back room of Leo’s Chinatown restaurant. Leo beats Jerry’s pair of sevens with a pair of eights, and Jerry pulls another brick of cash from his duffel bag.

When the other three Forays find out about the private game, they hatch a plot to break it up. Marcus is worried that Jerry won’t be able to cover Mon Gateau’s trainer fees. “He’s never been sicker in his life.”

Their van pulls up in a Chinatown alley. Renzo races inside tell Jerry that Marcus is outside, “as sick as EKG.” Jerry packs up his money and leaves. (In this quartet of losers, Jerry may be the biggest. Unlike Renzo, Marcus and Lonnie, he’s young, smart and good-looking enough to do something besides hang around the track.)

Meanwhile, Rosie (Kerry Condon) is back from Portland to ride Gettn’up Morning in his first race. On a locker in the women’s jockey room, she sees a piece of tape labeled “Julie.” That’s Julie Krone, the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, on Colonial Affair in the 2000 Belmont Stakes. (Krone’s husband, Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey, is a "Luck" staff writer.)

“So come from off it?” she asks Walter before the race.

“I wouldn’t get too far back,” he says.

Gettn’up Morning bucks in his stall, and by the time he starts running, he’s six lengths behind. However, the colt quickly catches the field. (This isn’t just competitiveness. Horses are herd animals. Running with the pack is an instinct. Get left behind, get eaten by wolves.)

Gettn’up Morning gains and gains. Rosie takes him around the stretch three wide (meaning she’s outside two other horses). As she takes the lead, we see Walter in the stands. The beauty of his horse -- and the beauty of his jockey -- smooth away every weary line on his face, making him look 40 years younger. Nick Nolte is the best actor in this series, by several lengths. This scene couldn’t have goosed my flesh more if I’d bet $500 on Gett’nup Morning. Everyone at the track realizes they’ve witnessed an extraordinary debut.

The track announcer (real-life Santa Anita announcer Trevor Denman) reads off a six-furlong (three-quarters of a mile) winning time of 1:07.42. That’s ludicrous, considering the slow start, and the fact that only one horse has ever run the Breeders Cup Sprint faster than that. (Midnight Lute, in 2008, also at Santa Anita.) But, as Escalante says, using the racetrack term for a horse with God-given talent, “That’s a freak.”

Throughout the race, the camera focuses on Gettn’up Morning’s reddening nasal cavities. In the barn afterward, the track veterinarian runs a scope through the horse’s nose and into his lungs. Informing Walt that he bled internally during the race, she diagnoses antibiotics.

“Lasix?” Walter asks.

“If he runs. Wouldn’t need it to breeze, though.”

Lasix is the brand name for furosemide, a diuretic that prevents horses from bleeding internally during races. The drug is considered so essential that almost every horse is prescribed it eventually.

To Walter, Gettn’up Morning is the reincarnation of his murdered sire.

“He runs like you, he moves like you, and he’s got this big heart, just like you,” he says. “I don’t think I could lose two of you. I couldn’t bear it.”

Rosie spends the evening of her victory in bed with Leon. Rathburn is sure Walter will find a veteran jockey for his stable’s new star -- “An inexperienced jock? They’re gonna be lining up to knock her over the fence.” But as we’re learning, Walter is too sentimental about the girl for that.


Recap of 'Luck' episode 3

Recap of 'Luck' episode 2

'Luck' investigated for treatment of horses

-- Edward McClelland

Photo: Kerry Condon as Rosie in "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti