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Decoding 'Luck': Sex, death and horses

March 12, 2012 |  7:10 am

Ronnie luck recap
Living with a jockey, it turns out, is just as bad as living with a gambler. Leon and Rosie are in bed in this episode of "Luck," but all she can think about is Gettn’up Morning, and whether Walter will let her keep riding the horse once Ronnie Jenkins recovers from his broken collarbone.

“Not knowing where I stand with that horse is driving me crazy,” she says.

I don’t know where Gettn’up Morning’s career is going, but I know this: He’s not the “Derby horse” Joey Rathburn called him in Episode 1. Why? Because his first race was a maiden special weight for 3-year-olds. That means he didn’t race as a 2-year-old, and, as every Derby handicapper knows, the last horse to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old was Apollo, in 1882.

However, Gettn’up Morning may have an even better future in store. Most Derby winners are retired to the breeding shed after their 3-year-old season, because winning the race makes them such valuable studs. The Derby is not so much a horse race as a sperm pageant. The most accomplished horses of recent decades -- Cigar, Ghostzapper, Gio Ponti, Tiznow, Zenyatta, Skip Away -- were late bloomers who peaked after their Triple Crown seasons. I see a Breeders’ Cup Classic in Gettn’up Morning’s future.

Ronnie is trying to get clean so he can go along for that ride, attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

"I apologized for not following instructions,” Rosie tells Joey. “I’d really like to know where I stand.”

Joey agrees to talk to the “old man,” and they agree that Rosie deserves a straight answer, since she’ll be better off returning to Portland Meadows if she can’t ride Gettn’up Morning. Walter promises a decision by the evening. In the meantime, Ronnie visits the trainer’s trailer to lobby for a return to the saddle.

“How’s the Big Horse?” he asks, using the racetrack term for the once-in-a-lifetime animal that can take a trainer to the winner’s circle of a multi-million dollar race. “This is me hoping to be considered getting the mount back I lost when I was injured.”

“Get yourself in shape, get sober, and get on the goddamn horse,” Walter says.

Ronnie was the jockey listed for Gettn’up Morning’s debut, but couldn’t ride because he broke his collarbone on another of Walter’s horses. Plus, he’s a pro who wouldn’t make the mistake of beating up a horse as he’s cruising to victory.  In the Long Shot bar that night, Walter breaks the news to Rosie, who takes it like the pro we know she’ll become.

“I’m very grateful, Mr. Smith,” she says. “You gave me a chance.”

Prediction: Rosie will ride at Santa Anita next season. Leon will outgrow his profession. We see him spitting in a bucket in the jockeys’ room. The clerk of scales weighs Leon, then remarks, “Jesus, kid, you’re pushing it.”

Lonnie decides to claim a horse named Niagara’s Fall -- without the other Forays. He thinks the filly is better than the competition she’s been running against. “I also like her because she’s gray.” (This is a common racetrack prejudice. Every Halloween, Churchill Downs runs the Gray Ghost Handicap, a race for gray horses only.)

Before Niagara’s Fall’s next race, Lonnie timestamps his claim envelope and drops it in the box. He’s the only claimant, so the horse is his. After taking a big lead in the stretch, Niagara’s Fall pulls up lame. I knew this was going to happen, because "Luck" is not just a drama, it’s a racetrack primer, and it had not yet answered the question, “What happens when the horse you claim turns out to be lame?”

The answer is, “That’s your problem.” A claimer becomes the property of its new owner the moment the starting gate opens. Niagara’s Fall ruptured her flexor tendon, Turo and Jo tell Lonnie, after loading the filly into the veterinary van and stabilizing her leg with a boot. It’s not fatal, but her career is over.

“No more racing,” Turo says. “She finished.”

“You’ve got yourself a broodmare [a breeding female] now,” Jo tells Lonnie, who is next seen at the Oasis Motel, reading a brochure on stud farms.

Marcus chews Lonnie out for not giving Turo a chance to investigate the filly’s soundness, but Lonnie is convinced Niagara’s Fall was cursed by her name: "Niagara Falls" is the trigger word for the Three Stooges’ “Slowly I Turned” routine.

Ace and Gus are still married. (Ace, trying on a rugged jacket: “I asked you to get me a windbreaker.” Gus: “This is what the horse people are wearing.”) But Ace’s affections are being stolen by Pint of Plain -- he installs a Web cam outside its stall, to Turo’s irritation -- and by Claire.

On their latest date, they arrive by helicopter at the farm where convicts work with horses. Claire teaches Ace how to jog a horse around the paddock, and introduces him to a retired racer who won $500,000 at the track, but was bought from a livestock agent on the way to the slaughterhouse for $186. (Congress imposed a five-year ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. in 2006, by refusing to fund inspectors, but there is talk of reopening the abbatoirs. However, they operate in foreign countries. Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, died in a Japanese slaughterhouse after his stud career ended. This led to a per-race “Ferdinand Fee” to guarantee old racehorses don’t end their lives at the knacker’s.)

Ace is also continuing his campaign to buy Santa Anita. His meeting with the owners of an Indian casino, to discuss a law allowing slots at the track, is photographed by a spy with a telephoto lens. Ace’s bagman, Nathan Israel, visits Mike the British Billionaire’s yacht, to tell potential investors that Ace felt betrayed before he went to prison, but is willing to let “bygones be bygones” by taking them in as partners.

Mike responds by beating Nathan with a crystal ashtray, leaving him in a pool of blood, while declaring “This is business.”

Is Nathan dead? Can even a billionaire get away with murder?

But let’s end this recap the way all good novels end -- not with a death, but a new life. Jo finally tells Turo she’s pregnant. At first, he cracks, “Who’s the papa?” But then, the abrasive trainer softens. He knows Jo will be a good mother because she’s been shepherding a friend’s son around the track, even getting Leon to give him a pair of goggles after a race.

“Come over here with that,” he says, and places a hand on Jo’s belly. “Maybe a boy would be OK.”


Recap of previous "Luck"

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

Full coverage and recaps of "Luck"

— Edward McLelland

Photo: Gary Stevens as Ronnie in "Luck." Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti.