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Decoding 'Luck': Place your bets on the final race

March 26, 2012 |  6:00 am

Joan Allen, Dustin Hoffman, John Ortiz, Dennis Farina in "Luck" finale.

I’ve finally figured out what Pint of Plain, the name of Ace and Gus’ horse, means. It means scriptwriter Bill Barich is using "Luck" to plug his latest book, "A Pint of Plain," a celebration of the Irish pub. (A “pint of plain” is a Guinness, in tavern terminology.) And you thought HBO was ad-free.

As for Pint of Plain, the horse, this final episode of the season (and now the series, since Season 2 has  been cancelled) takes place on the day of the Western Derby, where he’ll face Southern California’s other great 3-year-old, Gettn’up Morning. Like a race card, "Luck" consists of nine episodes (although at most racetracks, the eighth is the feature race, allowing one more contest for a denouement, or, in less dramatic terms, for horseplayers to get even before going home.)

At breakfast, Gus is reading a newspaper story headlined “Body Found Off Marina del Rey.”

“Ace,” he says, “there’s half a chance this here could be Israel.”

Before they can find out, Ace gets another surprise: His grandson shows up, unannounced, to see Pint of Plain run in the Derby. Although the young man insists Gus bought him a plane ticket, Ace thinks he was sent by Mike, perhaps to make him an easier target. Indeed, Ace is being stalked by a hired assassin from England, who almost gets a clear shot at him before Gus, who smells danger, orders Ace back inside.

"Another 10 seconds and I was on a plane back home,” the hit man tells the man with the telephoto lens who’s been following Ace for several episodes.

Ace and Gus ID Nathan at the morgue, then go to lunch, where they spot their lethal paparazzo. They feign an argument over Ace’s grandson — to make the would-be killer think they've fallen for the plane-ticket ruse — then Ace stalks off toward the bathroom. Photog calls hit man, but when hit man enters the men’s room, pistol drawn, he is ambushed by Gus, who strangles him and leaves his corpse atop a toilet. On their way out of the restaurant, Ace wraps up the rest of his sandwich.

Mon Gateau is running on the undercard, in the South Bay Handicap, a minor stakes race that nonetheless seems like a big jump from the $8,000 claimers he was competing in earlier this season. Stakes and allowance horses often descend into the minor leagues of claiming races as their speed declines, but claimers rarely go up in class. (A rare exception: Charismatic, who ran in a $62,500 claiming race at Santa Anita less than three months before winning the Kentucky Derby.)

“You think Mon Gateau’s got a chance?” Renzo asks Jerry, as he handicaps the card in the Oasis Motel.

“A hundred-percent objective, I put us right in the mix,” Jerry says. “And with that girl” — meaning Rosie — “20-1.”

At the track, Smith and Escalante are standing at the rail, watching their horses warm up. (Turo: “Gonna be one kind of horse race.” Walter: “It sure is.”)

Leon is bidding farewell to Rosie. Their fortunes have reversed. He’s going to ride at Portland Meadows, the bush track from which she recently escaped, but tells her, “I’ll be back once my weight’s right.”

Once the Forays arrive at the track (with Renzo’s mother, played by Mercedes Ruehl, who looks younger than her racetrack bum son), Jerry rattles a complicated series of Daily Doubles, Pick 3s, exactas, trifectas, and superfectas. In every one, Mon Gateau is the “key horse.” That means he has to win for Doubles and Pick 3s to pay off, and finish in the money for the exactas, tris and supers.

“No sense of proportion how he bets, but credit due, tremendous handicapper,” Marcus says.

This is something you need to know about the racetrack: The best handicappers are not always the most successful bettors. Picking winners is easy. The favorite wins 33% of the time, but because of the parimutuel system, you can’t make money betting on it.

The late California railbird Dick Mitchell, author of "Commonsense Handicapping" (the first horse-racing book I ever bought, and the best one-volume handicapping manual), estimates that the ability to construct winning bets constitutes 70% of a horseplayer’s success. Since Barich is promoting his book, I’ll quote a line from mine, "Horseplayers": “Now, at last, I’d discovered the dark heart and soul of the game: It wasn’t about predicting the behavior of horses. It was about predicting the behavior of other gamblers, and exploiting their mistakes.”

Mon Gateau wins running away, ahead of 14-1 shot in second and a 6-1 in third. The favorite “runs out” (of the money), finishing fourth. As a result, the superfecta pays $14,627, and the Forays have it. Jerry finds Leon and hands him a $500 win ticket on Mon Gateau.

“Couldn’t have gotten there without you,” he says.

In the Western Derby, the Forays are betting Pint of Plain, such is their confidence in Mon Gateau’s trainer, Turo Escalante. Before the race, Ronnie Jenkins weighs in at 120, causing race caller Trevor Denman to announce, “No. 1, Gettn’up Morning, is one pound over the weight.”

In the paddock with Pint of Plain, Ace tells Gus he wants to “give away a horse a month” when he owns the track. Then he spots Mike, his obstacle to making that happen.

"I understand you’ve had a busy day,” Mike shouts.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Ace retorts. “How long do you think your people will stand for this?”

“I think I’m on quite a long leash. Didn’t we find that out three years ago?”

As Turo predicted, the Western Derby is “one kind of horse race.” In the stretch, Pint of Plain and Gettn’up Morning race side by side, like Affirmed and Alydar, the great Triple Crown rivals. It’s a photo finish — a “head bob,” meaning the horses are running in such tight tandem whichever nose happens to be plunging forward at the finish line belongs to the winner.

Every racetrack finish line is equipped with a camera triggered by an electric eye. After the steward examines the photo, Denman announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. Now for the results of the photo finish" Placing first, No. 2, Pint of Plain.”

(It’s never actually that dramatic. The winner’s number is simply displayed atop the tote board.)

Watching from the hospital is Jo, who loses Turo’s baby during the race.

The Forays have won $417,000. Jerry celebrates by sprinkling hundred-dollar bills over his naked girlfriend. Money means nothing to these gamblers.

As the season ends, neither of the rivalries that defined this first season have been resolved.

“One’s impulse is to bulldoze and bury this facility, and Ace’s dreams with it,” Mike says. “Put up tract houses in its place. Real estate being depressed, casinos do seem a better bet.”

In the barn after the race, Turo tells Walter, “Next time, more of the same.”

Next time no doubt means the Kentucky Derby, the next race for two 3-year-olds who ran neck-and-neck in a million-dollar stake.

Unfortunately, we’ll never find out whether Santa Anita becomes a casino, or whether Pint of Plain and Gett’nup Morning make it to Churchill Downs. This was the last episode of "Luck," a series that didn’t have what its name suggested.


Previous 'Luck' recap

HBO's 'Luck' runs out of luck

HBO cancels 'Luck' after third horse death

— Edward McClelland

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