A quartet of misfits wins a million-dollar jackpot while a young jockey loses more than a race

By Jeff Labrecque
January 30, 2012 at 08:09 AM EST
Gusmano Cesaretti
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Thoroughbred racing likes to call itself the Sport of Kings. And for many casual fans who tune in to watch the ponies on television two or three times a year, the track might still seem like a glamorous place, a showcase of beautiful women in ostentatious hats, gardens of gorgeous flowers, and the sheer athletic magnificence of powerful animals bred solely to run a mile and a half (or so) as fast as possible. But not every day is Derby day, and when the millionaire dilettante owners go home and the network trucks pack up their cameras, what we have left is Luck, HBO’s new show about the murky tales that take place in the stables, on the backstretch at dawn, and in the minds of hopeless gamblers. Sports journalist Dick Schaap once described the unique allure of horse racing as “the scent of larceny,” and last night’s pilot was thick with it.

Things are looking up for Chester Bernstein, A.K.A. Ace (Dustin Hoffman) when we first meet him. He’s getting out of jail, but he doesn’t seem too excited by his change in address. Instead, he seems agitated, jumpy, and when he’s picked up by his driver, Gus (Dennis Farina), he’s mostly quiet until he finally asks Gus to get him a tape recorder. Why would a guy named Ace just out of prison want a tape recorder?

Turns out Gus might be the richest chauffeur in California. He won a slot machine jackpot in Vegas when Ace was in the clink, and plunked down $2 million to buy a first-class thoroughbred. How ‘bout that?

Early in the morning, the racetrack at Santa Anita is already alive with action. Trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) is prepping his horses for the day’s races. He flirts with the pretty vet (Jill Hennessy) and barely acknowledges the apprentice jockey assigned to warming up his horse… until the Cajun kid, Leon (Tom Payne), tells him how big he’s going to win this afternoon. Turo snaps at the kid to shut his mouth about any such thing. Turo has plans for this horse — a longshot — and the last thing he needs is some “nobody triple-bug apprentice” jockey ruining his action.

Not far away, Walter (Nick Nolte) is prepping his own horse. Walter’s been around, you can tell, but he doesn’t say much — except to the horse. He’s been pampering this colt, but today is going to be different. “Maybe you let him stretch out a little,” he instructs the pretty Irish exercise rider who hops aboard, careful to look around to make sure no one heard him. Walter retreats to the grandstand with his binoculars and stop-watch and what he sees of his horse takes his breath away. “Guess I still know a peach when I see one,” he says to himself.

Walter isn’t the only one to see something special in his horse. A trio of degenerates gather near the rail, strategizing their day’s bets. They’re aiming for the Pick 6 jackpot — pick six consecutive winners correctly and win as much as $2.7 million. Jerry (Jason Gedrick) has his picks ready, but there’s a problem. He’s tapped out, broke. Yesterday, he went home with $390 in winnings, and now he’s busted. He tells oxygen-mask Marcus (Kevin Dunn) that he lost the money playing poker at the casino, but take a closer look at Jerry. He looks a little strung out. Is he a bad poker player or does he have other habits that Marcus and the crew aren’t aware of?

To increase their odds of winning, the Degenerates intend to bet on several horses in each race — except in the fourth race. Bucking conventional wisdom, Jerry thinks Turo’s longshot is a sure-thing. He’s not really betting on the horse, Mon Gateau, or its Cajun rider — he’s betting on the cagy Turo, who might just have a history of longshots inexplicably paying off. Jerry knows his stuff, he’s confident in his selections, but he too is distracted when Walter’s horse barrels around the last turn like a locomotive. Who is that horse?

NEXT: The Degenerates want Mon Gateau and to eat it too

Jockey agent Joey (Richard Kind) has the same wide-eyed reaction. One glimpse of the horse’s powerful strides and he’s on the phone to a boozing client, “Ronnie, wherever it is you’re flopped, find your coat, find your keys, find your car. Get to the gym, because if I didn’t just see a Derby horse, then I’m a Chinese dentist. Plus, the mount is open for you.”

Jerry might have the smart picks, but he’s still busted, meaning they need some money to place the multiple Pick-6 bets. Fortunately, dimwitted Renzo (Ritchie Coster) has a daffy friend with money burning a hole in his pocket. He’s in, which becomes essential since the security guard who doubles as a shylock won’t lend Jerry the grand he needs. But if Jerry shares his picks, the guard will give him $50. Jerry eyes the bill hungrily and reluctantly marks his winners, as “Me and the Devil Blues” plays. Now, if he and his crew win anything with their horses, they’ll have to share it with the overweight guard.

In Vegas, Ace calls on Mr. DeRossi, an associate who welcomes him back to the fold. Ace was the architect, a big deal, and he took a fall, serving three years to protect even bigger fish. While he was in jail, DeRossi and the others “helped” Gus’ win his big $5 million jackpot. Gus might own the expensive horse, but in name only: Ace is the guy in control. He now has even more ambitious plans: He wants to buy the struggling racetrack at Santa Anita and pair it with a casino. DeRossi is all smiles about the idea, but does he mean it, or is he simply kissing Ace’s behind to keep him quiet about other things?

Then, Ace pulls something out of his pocket. Turns out Gus did get him a tape recorder. DeRossi can’t hide his surprise. Was Ace wearing a wire? No, he insists. It’s for his faulty memory. But DeRossi’s suspicion sends Ace into a rage. He rips his shirt open and challenges DeRossi to frisk him. Just as quickly, he calms down, but Ace is upset. He doesn’t like missing three years of his life. He doesn’t like getting old. He doesn’t like being doubted or questioned.

At the track, it’s time for the crucial fourth race. Turo gives Leon very specific instructions, but the race doesn’t unfold they way it’s supposed to. Leon and Mon Gateau get trapped on the rail, forcing Leon to be bold. He bolts further inside and wins by about a length. Everybody wins: 12-to-1 Mon Gateau, Leon, the Degenerates. Oh, and especially Turo. “What a surprise,” he tells the TV reporter… before cashing in his own winning tickets for a sweet $39,600 payout.

In the stable area, Walter sweet-talks his stallion, and we find out that the horse’s father was killed. “Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I hear it going on?” whispers Walter.

The Degenerates are on a roll, and with one race to go, their prayers are answered. The security guard didn’t bet Jerry’s picks after all. He was spooked by that contrarian solo pick in the fourth race, meaning the jackpot is all theirs. They have bet every horse in the last race, meaning they can’t lose. It’s just a question of how much they’ll win. If the favorite wins, they’ll share $48,860; if the longshot wins, the payout will be a cool $2.7 million. The longshot, a filly with Leon aboard her for the first time, is named Tattered Flag. That sounds promising…

And they’re off! Ronnie (Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, from Seabiscuit) finally shows up, reeking of booze and reefer. He and Joey marvel as Leon maneuvers his longshot mount through traffic and steers her into the lead down the homestretch. And then… CRACK. Tattered Flag’s leg snaps. Another longshot goes on to win, and the Degenerates can’t believe their good fortune. But on the track, Leon soothes the mortally injured horse as the doctor ends Flag’s suffering. A tear runs down his cheek, and Ronnie and Joey fall in with Leon as he walks back to the paddock. “Did you ever have that? Leon asks. “The light go out of ‘der eyes?”

“You never get used to it,” answers Ronnie. “That’s why they make Jim Beam.”

Ronnie and Leon seem more than jockey buddies. During the race, Ronnie was watching Leon even closer than the horse herself, and after the accident, he hurried down to be with Leon. Little brother/big brother? Father/son? Or just colleagues?

The track officials are eager to give away an oversize check, but the Degenerates are in no hurry. Turns out one or more of them might have some IRS issues and they don’t want to share the winnings with Uncle Sam. Until then, they plan to rent a hotel room with four rooms, you know, to keep an eye on each other… Maybe they’ll collect tomorrow.

Back in Vegas, Ace is talking about his business dealings… to himself. A habit from his jail days? Or is he recording his thoughts? Gus arrives and gives him an update on their horse, but Ace is still thinking about his meeting with DeRossi. “As far as them that did what they did to me,” he says, nursing a grudge. “I think I played it okay.”

So folks, are you feeling Lucky? What are the chances the four Degenerates squabble over the million-dollar jackpot before they even get a chance to claim it? Is Jerry a junkie or just a bad card-player? Did you get the impression that Ronnie and Leon had a history? And what do you make of “Splitting the Atoms” by Massive Attack as the show’s theme?

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