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Decoding 'Luck': The earth quakes and Ace makes his move

March 5, 2012 |  7:25 am

Turo escalante john ortiz luck recap
Latinos are the most populous ethnic group in horse racing, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the Anglo-Saxon names of the owners, trainers and breeders in the Daily Racing Form. Few make it as far as "Luck's" Turo Escalante.

Look deeper: there are plenty of Central Americans jockeys, but there are even more grooms, hot walkers and groundskeepers. They’re the grunt workers who feed the horses, clean out the stables and harrow the track. Seasonal workers, they earn the minimum wage and live in spartan dormitories on the backstretch, enduring a level of exploitation barely a step above the horses for whom they care. Even though only the horses are sweating, it’s still a sweatshop.

Early on in this episode, Renzo — the comic relief in a series that could use more — is following Turo and Jo around the paddock, offering them Foray Stables T-shirts to wear during Mon Gateau’s next race.

“Optionally!” he emphasizes, when they make it clear he’s being a pest.

Suddenly, a woman in the barn drops the phone and collapses in tears. It turns out her son was killed while walking to school in Puerto Vallarta. From Escalante’s reaction, it’s clear she’s an illegal immigrant.

“If she goes there, you think she come back in?” he says. “And you know what she gonna think? I was selfish with my grief."

Meanwhile, Joey Rathburn’s sad sack life is shaken up, literally, by an earthquake.

We watch him shaving in a tiny apartment. Then we hear him calling his ex-wife — and this time getting her on the phone. "I wish things had worked out between us,” he tells her, as she listens impatiently, “because it would have been great.” 

A pistol lies on a desk. Distraught over his failed marriage, Joey decides to shoot himself. But at the moment he pulls the trigger, the earth under Southern California shifts. The bullet ricochets off a pipe and grazes Joey’s cheek. The bullet caused a superficial wound but healed something deeper: Joey’s stammer is gone.

“I sense that event has a positive, doc,” he tells the emergency room physician in un-halting English. “I can tell you that for a fact.”

Worried about the earthquake’s affect on Mon Gateau, Renzo tries to engage Escalante in a discussion. Horses, instinctively fear-and-flight animals, are spooked by loud noises and natural disturbances. Even racetrack fireworks shows are controversial, because terrified horses pound their stalls, sometimes injuring themselves.

Ace Bernstein is finally making his big move. His probation officer has warned him that the state racing board is “going to take a good look [at] a felon back at the racetrack.” But Ace is not only back at the track, he’s taking a breakfast meeting with the owner in the sunny infield and talking sale price with the owner.

“So let me guess?” the owner says. “Combine the racetrack with casino gambling. Whatever idea you’ve got, 5% ain’t where you’re stopping.”

Ace offers him $125 million for the “plant” — the grandstand and the grounds — plus $350 million if the state legalizes slot machine. That, of course, would require the approval of the Indian gaming lobby.

When Nathan Israel, Ace’s cold-blooded financial whiz kid, meets with Mike the English Billionaire, Mike offers him a second paycheck to turn against Ace.

“The Indian gaming lobby is the way he’ll swing Sacramento,” Mike says. “We’ve got to put the Indian gaming lobby in our pocket.”

Mon Gateau comes out of the earthquake fine, so the Four A’s are sitting in the grandstand in their Foray Stables T-shirts and betting madly on their horse. A $50 Double wheel (that’s a Daily Double — a bet requiring a horseplayer to pick the winners of two consecutive races — combining Mon Gateau with several horses in the next race). A Pick 3 with Mon Gateau plus ALL-ALL (that’s a three-race series combining Mon Gateau with EVERY horse in the next two races). A 7-2-6 cold tri. (A trifecta is a bet forecasting the top three finishers in a race. Betting it “cold” means using only one horse in each spot. It’s easier to hit three consecutive bullseyes in darts.)

On his way to victory (as I said last week, every main character’s horse wins every time), Mon Gateau collides with a rival on the turn, forcing the horse’s jockey to pull him up. The number 7 goes up at the top of the tote board. Then it begins flashing. The “INQUIRY” sign lights up in no-vacancy neon.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please hold all tickets,” Trevor Denman announces. “The stewards have posted the inquiry sign.”

This is horse racing’s version of a flag on the play. The penalty can range anywhere from demotion in the finish order to disqualification. It can also mean suspension for a jockey if his ride endangered the rest of the field. A flashing number is the most anxious moment of a gambler’s life.

“It was ticky-tack, Marcus,” says Renzo. “They can’t take him down.”

“They can and they have,” Marcus replies. “Him and the other three blind mice.”

The “three blind mice” are the stewards, a three-member panel charged with reviewing race infractions. After talking with Leon on the phone, they decide that the horse he grazed was losing ground and had no chance to win. The 7 stops blinking. But that’s not the end of it. The aggrieved rider shoves Leon in the jockeys’ room, shouting, “Don’t they teach you rednecks how to steer? That’s number one. There’s no two.”

Rosie also makes a rookie mistake on Gettin’up Morning. Before the horse’s next race, Walter tells her he won’t need the whip. But in the stretch, as Getn’up Morning surges between two horses, she slaps his flanks twice. Gettin’up Morning runs the mile in 1:32.21, a new track record, and eight-tenths of a second off the world record Mr. Light set on the Gulfstream Park turf course. But Walt isn’t happy. Even as word is going around that his horse is “the second coming of Man o’ War, he grabs the whip out of Rosie’s hands and tosses it away. Rosie used too much horse. The best jockey I ever saw, Pat Day, pressed his hands to a horse’s neck to communicate exactly how much effort he needed to win the race, and not a length more. You’ve got to save something for the next race.

Meanwhile, Joey’s stammer comes back after he’s taunted about it by Ronnie — who’s devoting his convalescence to acting like a frustrated jerk to everyone at the track.cJo reveals that Turo knocked her up. And Ace takes Claire out to dinner, after sending her home from the barn while he kept a vigil over Pint of Plain.

“I was hoping you’d allow me to stay,” Claire says. “You wouldn’t be imposing. I’ve spent millions of nights in barns. I have seen people profoundly changed by being near horses. It brings out patience and respect.”

Recap of previous "Luck"

"Luck's" Michael Mann to chronicle war photographers for HBO

Full coverage and recaps of "Luck"

— Edward McLelland

Photo: John Ortiz as Turo Escalante. Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO.