'Luck's biggest star stepped forward and it wasn't Michael Gambon, whose mysterious Mike finally emerged to face Ace. For once, the most compelling action took place on the track, and Gettin'up Morning is the real deal.

By Jeff Labrecque
February 20, 2012 at 07:27 AM EST
Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO
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For a cable TV show, Luck has plenty of big names — Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte for starters. But the real star of the series emerged only last night, and he walks on all fours. Gettin’up Morning, Walter Smith’s promising colt, went to the gate for the first time and when he got up to speed, the heavens practically opened. Degenerate gamblers, self-destructive addicts of all stripes, gruesome injuries, and corrupt souls — it all goes silent when a creature as beautiful as a thoroughbred does what it’s born to do. In this way, “Both Hands on the Wheel” was an epiphany.

Jerry would miss it, unfortunately. He’s yet to hit rock bottom at the tables, but only because he still has some money left in his duffel bag, though he seemed intent to hand the rest of it over to Leo at poker. At this point, Leo is so deep inside his rival’s head that Jerry may as well play with his cards up. The frustrated Degenerate folded when he had a winning hand and was manipulated into playing aggressive when he should be cautious. “I want you to talk yourself into playing,” taunted Leo, who knew just what buttons to push. After another losing hand and another Leo smirking remark, Jerry agreed to an invitation to move the high-stakes action from the casino to the back room of Leo’s restaurant. This was not going to end well for Jerry — no matter that Naomi the dealer clearly has a soft spot for him. Hey, a sketchy gambler sits down at your table and loses over and over and over again while being belligerent, what’s not to love?

Joey’s prospects were not much better. One of his jockeys, Ronnie, is sidelined with a broken collarbone, and the other, Leon, is eating his way out of business. Of course, Ronnie’s collarbone is probably the least of his problems. Are we agreed that his tumble from his mount last week wasn’t altogether a freak accident? Apparently, he bolted from the hospital and is now enjoying the numbing benefits of prescribed drugs with his morning coffee. “I’m dealing with a lot of pain,” he yelled at Joey, who’s in his own meltdown mode. Leon’s weight was up enough that Escalante noticed. Apparently other trainers noticed too because Leon’s not getting many mounts. “This is sort of a zero sum game,” Joey screamed at the frightened young bug. “I don’t give a f— how hard you’re trying. You’re either on the horse or you’re not.”

Joey was introduced to audiences as a sweet, rather harmless guy. His nervous speech impediment only made him more empathetic, but he might be as desperate and ruthless as any of the show’s other characters. Last week, he pleaded with the doctor not to deactivate Leon, even though his client had just cracked his skull after he passed out trying to lose weight. Now that Leon’s weight is inching up, it’s clear that the bug’s health is at the very least secondary to more bottom-line concerns. Joey only gets paid if his jockeys ride, simple as that. And he’s apparently willing to do just about anything to make sure he stays fat.

For a couple of weeks now, we’ve heard about Mike Smythe, Ace’s former colleague whose cocaine side-business resulted in Ace’s three-year stretch. Mike stored some product in a New York apartment that Ace’s grandson occasionally lived in. When the cops banged down the door, they arrested the grandson and applied pressure on Ace to roll over on Mike. Of course, Ace decided to take the fall himself. So here they are, two power-players meeting for the first time since. Mike’s got game: “Should I call you Chester? No, I’ll call you Ace now. Sit down. Please, sit down.” Just watch him preen, throwing his right leg over the back of the sofa. Mike knew all about Ace’s plan for Santa Anita, and he wants in. But he doesn’t trust Ace anymore — how could he after what transpired? Ace surely had a plan for this encounter — he’s been plotting it since the premiere — but Mike just might be Leo to his Jerry. In a way, Mike is in a different league. He can afford to let Ace know exactly what he means. When he asked, “How’s your grandson, Ace? I hope he appreciates what you did for him,” the only thing more offensive than the threat is the arrogance. (What you did for him? For him?) Mike called him No-Sweat Ace Bernstein, but the digs finally had the intended effect and Ace lost his cool. Mike might respect Ace to a certain degree, but he doesn’t consider him an equal. To him, taking the hit for the coke to save his grandson and protect Mike represented weakness. I’m sure he’s confident he can outmaneuver Ace again when the crucial moment arrives.

NEXT: A star is born

Back at the track, all of Walter’s hopes and dreams are now riding on an unproven female jockey. Rosie accepted his offer to come back to Santa Anita and ride Gettin’up Morning after Ronnie’s fall, and judging by her bubbly arrival to the stables, she isn’t holding a grudge for being his second choice. We’ve seen races before on Luck, but they were stalked by dread and disaster. Leon’s breakdown, Ronnie’s fall, even Leon’s victory yielded more relief than triumph. But this race was designed to be something special. Gettin’up Morning struggled awkwardly out of the gate and immediately fell six lengths behind the pack. But the musical score assured you that this race was different. The camera told you that this horse is different: slo-mo, up-angle camera shots framing him as some sort of Pegasus. This animal is a machine — a tremendous machine, you might say. He chased down the leaders, Rosie took him outside, and time seemed to stand still for the oddballs who have built their lives around these fragile animals. Marcus looked like he might be having a heart attack; Walter was mentally aboard the horse himself, rhythmically guiding him home through a face full of tears; Joey could only see the money he’s losing with the broad aboard. And then the violins. Oh, the violins. Bliss — we now love this horse as much as Walter.

After the race, though, Walter’s winner was bleeding heavily from the nose, a common but not trivial ailment known as Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH). Jo the hot vet calmed his fears, suggesting some antibiotics and perhaps some Lasix, a diuretic that sometimes helps by lowering a horse’s blood pressure, before his next race. “You’ve got yourself a winner, Mr. Smith,” Jo said.

Rosie was still vibrating from her victory, and she celebrated with Leon, who clearly is more than a cute rival jockey. We’d seem them flirt before at the track, but like a certain vet and Machiavellian trainer, these two keep their true feelings for each other under wraps at work. They’re much more comfortable at home, where Rosie relived her glorious ride and seemed eager to get back in the saddle. Jo’s post-race rendezvous was more relaxed, though she and Escalante also relived the day’s most talked-about performance. He can’t help himself, asking about Gettin’up Morning’s post-race exam, but she kept her mouth shut about any inside information that could prove useful to a smart gambler. For now, anyway.

The Degenerates still had business to conduct: locate and rescue Jerry. Marcus knew the stakes changed once they learned that Jerry has traded the casino tables for Leo’s lair. “Not only can we lose all our money, we can get our throats cut,” said Marcus. Indeed, Leo was holding court in his restaurant’s back room, getting backrubs from one of his ladies while Jerry sank lower and lower. Renzo and Lonnie arrived to retrieve him, pretending that they need him to help with a sick Marcus. Even Jerry didn’t believe that lie, but the fear in their faces woke him up to the reality of his situation and his surroundings. For once, he beat a retreat and lived to roll another day.

Ace’s other two meetings went much better than his face-to-face with Mike. He granted Joan Allen’s Claire $220,000 to set up her ponies-for-prisoners program. Later, in his end-of-the-day review with Gus, he said he wasn’t sexually attracted to her, but c’mon… he smelled her letter, he handed her cash practically before she’d finished requesting it. Ace didn’t take Mike up on his crude offer to consort with his harem, but he is clearly investing in Claire more than her cause. He was even more generous with Nathan, his young financial prodigy. To be fair, we haven’t exactly witnessed Nathan’s genius in action — in fact, he seems a little out of his depth — but Ace apparently sees a million bucks worth of potential for his scheme to get back at Mike. “I don’t envy that kid for what’s coming down,” smiled Ace. Does Ace see Nathan as a disposable pawn in his game? And is there anything more to his dalliance with Claire?

Finally, Joey revealed his true colors at the bar, as he waited for the bail bondsman or the hospital to call about Ronnie, and lamented about Rosie’s good fortune. “An inexperienced jock on a horse with unlimited potential, for Christ’s sake!” he raved, clearly drunk. “They’re going to be lining up to knock her over the fence to free up that mount… hypothetically I’m saying.”

So, what will it be regarding Ronnie: the bail bondsman or the hospital? Did Ace falter in his meeting with Mike, or did it go exactly as he hoped? Did that horse race effect you even half the way it touched me? And how will Rosie respond to having a bulls-eye on her back? And how will her horse — and her boss — respond to the bleeding?

If you have more questions about the show or the sport of horse racing, check in on Twitter tomorrow night at 9 p.m. ET. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has been managing a Twitter conversation at #LuckChat that features noted track experts as well as actors from the show, including John Ortiz, Tom Payne, Peter Appel, Gary Stevens and Chantal Sutherland. Check it out.

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