Decoding ‘Luck’: Betting on a bandaged horse and a go-between


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

So far, HBO’s ‘Luck’ is the best depiction of racetrack degenerates since the 1989 movie ‘Let It Ride,’ about one very lucky day in the life of a cab driving horseplayer played by Richard Dreyfuss. None of Luck’s actors can match Dreyfuss -- his manic delivery of the line “God likes me, he really, really likes me” has become a racetrack catchphrase. But ‘Luck’ is a furlong ahead of ‘Let It Ride’ in the realism department: Dreyfuss’s character bet on a horse because it winked at him.

In last night’s episode, we found out why Ace Bernstein is interested in Santa Anita: he wants to buy it. Why would anyone want to invest in the dying sport of horse racing?


So he can turn it into a casino. As Bernstein explains over lunch with two potential partners (who’ll put their names on the papers, since he’s a felon), casino gambling is illegal in California, but the bankrupt state is “looking for untapped revenue streams.” Santa Anita would be “the perfect Trojan horse…to bring in slots and table games.” Aqueduct, a dumpy track in Queens, N.Y., was recently transformed into a “racino.” In the first two months, it brought in $90 million -- a lot more than the railbirds were betting.

Small-time investors Marcus, Jerry, Lonnie and Renzo are lying low after winning on their $2.2 Pick Six ticket, hiding out in the one-star Oasis Motel. Uptight about their new wealth, Marcus chews out Jerry for getting into a high-stakes poker game, drawing attention to the syndicate by acting like “Johnny Big Time.”

Renzo decides he wants to own a horse himself. Mon Gateau, the horse Jerry singled in the Pick Six, is running in an $8,000 claiming race. (This indicates that several weeks have passed since the first episode, since horses rest that long between races.) What’s a claiming race? There are three categories of races: stakes, allowance and claiming. Stakes are big-money races, such as the Kentucky Derby and the Hollywood Gold Cup; allowances are everyday races in which horses are not for sale; in a claiming race, all the horses can be purchased, for the same price. Most horses race in claimers, because they’re not fast enough to compete in stakes and allowances. On a recent Sunday, Santa Anita carded claiming races for $10,000, $25,000 and $32,000. The sliding scale of prices ensures that horses run against comparable competition, since no one wants to give away a horse for less than it’s worth.

As it happens, though, Mon Gateau won for more than $8,000 in his last race. A trainer will sometimes claim a horse for $10,000, then “run him for the nickel” -- $5,000 -- to win an easy victory. The winner’s purse makes up for the drop in price, and the trainer turns a small profit.

Escalante spent two years trying to bring Mon Gateau back from an injury, so he doesn’t want to lose the horse. He tries to pull off a coup: running a horse for a cheaper price than its last race, winning an easy purse and avoiding a claim. Often, when a horse runs for a lower ‘tag,’ bettors and trainers see it as a sign that something is wrong with the animal. Escalante attempts to reinforce that perception by bandaging the horse’s front legs, usually an indication of infirmity.

“Bandages,” observes Renzo’s trainer friend, Goose, who has come with him to check out the horse. “Old school head fake.”


Leon, the apprentice jockey, isn’t so sure. He’s reluctant to ride Mon Gateau again because he’s worried the horse might break a leg and throw him.

“He looks broken down so the odds go up,” explains his agent, Joey Rathburn.

In the paddock, Escalante meets with Bernstein before the race. (Bernstein, we later learn, gave Escalante his big break. He spotted the Peruvian immigrant selling carrots for horses, and convinced a trainer to give him a job with the horses. Now, in violation of his probation, he’s hiring Escalante to train a horse for him.)

“If you wanted to make a bet, I wouldn’t tell you no,” Escalante tells Bernstein and his flunky, Gus. “If the bum don’t fall off, they win further than you can throw a rock.”

Mon Gateau gets squeezed on the backstretch, but Leon pulls him back, circles the field, and wins running away. In the winner’s circle, a red claim tag is hung on his bridle. It turns out there are two claimants, Renzo and a big-time cowboy trainer. The new owner is determined by a two-way “shake.” A track employee places two numbered balls in a bottle, shakes it, and pours out…the cowboy trainer’s number.

Escalante is furious about losing Mon Gateau, and accuses Leon of revealing that the horse was, in fact, sound.

“I hope I don’t find out you ran your mouth,” he says. “When I find out who spilled the beans, I’ll make the [...] a little sorry.”

Jerry finally has some luck at the poker table, winning a huge pot from his gambling nemesis Leo, a Chinese gambler who had threatened to “wipe the white off your face.”

And Lonnie is feeling flush enough to buy a new suit and back out of a slip-and-fall insurance scam he was about to run with two hookers. When he tells them he’s out, though, they drug his drink and lure him back to their motel for sex. “What we insured you for was your life,” they remind him, and try to beat him to death. He survives when he falls through a first-floor window into the parking lot, and is rescued by a Good Samaritan.

Walter, the trainer played by Nick Nolte, still doesn’t have much to do in this episode. He tells a story to jockey Ronnie Jenkins (played by Gary Stevens, who also played jockey George “Iceman” Woolf in ‘Seabiscuit’), about how the sire of his prize horse got his legs broken for insurance. And he helps his exercise rider, Rosie (Kerry Condon), take her first step toward becoming a jockey. He doesn’t think she’s ready for Santa Anita, a major league track, but connects her with Rathburn at the Long Shot tavern.

“You’ll make a good jockey, at Portland Meadows and the like,” he tells her. “There’s got to be an easier place to start.”

Meanwhile, Ace and Gus are at the Beverly Hilton, still plotting to bring in their lunch partners as investors in buying Santa Anita.

“We need a go-between,” Ace says. “I’ll pick a go-between so we can do what we need to do to get these guys.”


‘Luck’ recap: episode 1

David Milch aims for visceral experience with ‘Luck’

David Milch and Michael Mann take a gamble on ‘Luck’

-- Edward McClelland