The pace quickens as the track's personalities reveal some hidden connections

By Jeff Labrecque
February 06, 2012 at 06:25 AM EST
Steve Schapiro
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The critics — many of whom have already seen the first several episodes of David Milch and Michael Mann’s racetrack collaboration — have decided Luck has the potential to be something special. But there’s some truth in the more popular criticism that last week’s series premiere asked a lot of its audience. Who are these losers? Why was Ace in jail and what’s his M.O. now that he’s out? What’s the secret haunting Nick Nolte’s trainer, Walter Smith? And what the heck is a triple-bug apprentice jockey? The drama was a little slow out of the gate, likely intentionally so. (When I spoke with Nick Nolte two months ago, even he acknowledged this fact, saying, “The first show doesn’t really say much, but it’s really going to open up. By episode 3 or 4, we really get cooking.”)

Last night’s second episode, directed by Hotel Rwanda‘s Terry George, turned up the heat to simmer by beginning to connect the dots and answer some questions left dangling in the premiere. The four Degenerates, winners of the $2.7 million Pick-6, have quietly collected their winnings, but three of them are struggling to keep their windfall from burning holes in their pockets. Compulsive gambler Jerry has graduated to the more expensive poker tables, dropping thousand-dollar hands in the process. Ladies-man Lonnie is walking around in a slick new suit, and Renzo has decided he’d like to make an $8,000 claim on Mon Gateau, Escalante’s horse that was so responsible for his good fortune. Only Marcus is successfully staying in the weeds, carting around a laundry bag of God-knows-what on his wheelchair while acting as ornery as ever.

After meeting with his probation officer, Ace takes a meeting with DeRossi and a reputable businessman (Ted Levine) who might be interested in helping Ace get his plans for Santa Anita off the ground. “The Ace is back in place,” grins DeRossi, who is clearly a front man for someone bigger, someone named Mike, perhaps. Ace doesn’t seem to care for this big fish, Mike, negotiating that the man in question’s cut from any proposed deal will have to come out of the other partners’ pockets. Afterwards, Gus asks Ace how he got mixed up with Mike in the first place — Thank you, Gus! Turns out Ace and Mike were associates who at one point shared a co-op. Unbeknownst to Ace, Mike started storing some cocaine in the place, while Ace’s grandson was using the apartment as a bachelor pad. When the cops came to break up one of the kid’s parties, they found the stash. Refusing to let his grandson take the fall or rat on Mike, Ace claimed the coke was his, hence the three years in jail. Can’t wait to meet this charmer, Mike.

At the track, Smith’s mystery horse, Gettin’up Morning, is chomping at the bit, figuratively. With Rosie aboard, he blows past some early-morning practice rivals, encouraging Rosie to lobby to be his official jockey when he goes into the gate in earnest. Smith is noncommittal and seems much more interested in reconnecting with a familiar face from his days in Kentucky, Ronnie, who apparently is recovering from his own racetrack accident.

Escalante has his eyes on Smith’s horse now, too, an unwelcome distraction, perhaps, from his own strategy to expose Mon Gateau in the low-level claiming race. The pretty vet questions his decision right after she gives the horse a $20,000 shot of Lasix, but Escalante thinks he’s got the system rigged, with leg bandages meant to scare off prospective buyers. Clearly, there are buyers who are interested, but Leon, the jockey who rode him to victory last week, is having doubts. Since his last mount had to be euthanized on the track, he’s spooked by the possibility of hopping aboard another horse who might not be physically sound. His agent, Joey, warns him not to dwell on such matters — just get back on the horse and forget it. Or else it might happen again.

NEXT: Escalante loses more than a few carrots

Escalante’s ruse almost works. Mon Gateau wins again — though his easy come-from-behind victory was fraught with tension as soon as the trainer bragged to Gus and Ace in the paddock, “If the bug don’t fall off, they win longer than you can throw a rock.” Gus practically sprints to the bettor’s window to place a $200 bet, and sees his victory as some validation of this country’s greatness. What do you expect from a thick-headed guy who made it rich from a fixed slot machine?

Renzo’s dream to buy a horse, though, is threatened when another claim is made for Mon Gateau. And wouldn’t you know it — they lose a draw to the other bidder. Poor Renzo. “I was gonna get him for my friends,” laments Renzo, who sadly follows the horse back to its stable like an abandoned puppy. Escalante, on the other hand, is teeming with anger at the blowback; he can barely pretend to glad-hand Gus and Ace afterwards. “Looks like you took a beat on a game you ran,” Ace finally says, with a thin knowing smile. Ace knows a lot about Escalante — he handpicked him, after all. Later, he tells Gus that he once helped get Escalante started decades ago when the trainer was a fresh immigrant selling carrots and other vegetables outside the stables. When Ace made a carrot remark at the track, Escalante didn’t seem to flinch — does he remember their encounters from a former life?

Walter and Ronnie are having a moment, too, though they’re not singing “My Old Kentucky Home” together. Walter conveniently explains his cryptic remarks from the premiere about the death of his horse’s legendary father. Turns out Kentucky “quality” killed Delphi — the breeders’ family gutted the farm and when there was nothing left, they broke the legs of their best horse, which was insured for $30 million. “You know what breaking legs sounds like?” Walter asks between the tears. “Branches snapping.”

Rosie watches the men from afar, and knows her chance is gone. At the track watering hole, The Long Shot, she apologizes for putting Walter on the spot about it, and the soft-eyed trainer tries to let her down easy. Inside, Walter breaks bread with Joey and they talk business. The agent’s stutter takes a vacation as the pair agree for Ronnie to ride the promising colt in his upcoming debut.

Now that he’s living the high life, Lonnie is less interested in the slip-and-fall insurance scam he thought he had been developing with his two horny Orly Taitz clones. They, however, are much more invested in following through, so they drug him, get him naked, and attempt to collect on the life insurance policy they’ve taken out on him. He doesn’t know what hit him, and he’s lucky to escape in one piece. I believe the takeaway line was from the topless woman wielding a blunt weapon, who said, “You think you can double-cross people, or lie on your word or your promises — like our Muslim president from Kenya!”

Jerry is the only Degenerate who gets a break today. After at least two huge recent losses at the poker table, he lucks into a jackpot when the dealer gives him the one card he desperately needs. He gets back to the one-star motel — remember the four adjoining rooms for the four guys? — just as a bleeding Lonnie is dumped at Renzo’s door. Elsewhere, Gus and Ace talk about their day and plot their next move. Ace needs another go-between, besides Gus, for his more ambitious designs. The plan, whatever that is, is still intact, though. “Let’s go get these c—suckers,” says Gus, as Ace nods solemnly. C—suckers?! David Milch lives!

Did you enjoy the second episode more than the premiere? Are you slowly picking up the gambling and racetrack lingo, as well as the various Spanish, Cajun, and Irish accents? After Escalante’s numb-nut blunder, who’s luck is next to run out?

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