In a kinder-gentler episode of 'Luck,' our gritty characters shared some tender moments. But was it simply the calm before the storm?

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated February 27, 2012 at 05:01 AM EST
Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO
S1 E5
  • Book

Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of happy endings at the racetrack, and Luck, to its credit, has not flinched from reflecting the sport’s rough edges. But last night’s episode of Luck examined the softer sides of several of its most unapologetic wretches. Most of these oddballs and hard-cases are operating without a safety net of any kind and we’ve previously seen them at their desperate worst, warts and all. Last night, which represented the halfway point for the show’s first season, we witnessed glimpses of their humanity and vulnerability, inviting us to double-down on our investment in their impending fates as Luck begins its kick towards the finish line.

Ace, the cold-blooded architect of suspect business ventures of all shapes and sizes, is in love. I’m not sure how I feel about this development. He can confront the man who ostensibly sent him to prison, and silence a corporate board with a steely stare, but the fact that Claire LeChea was late for their meeting had him totally discombobulated. He couldn’t wait to hand her a giant six-figure check so her do-gooder prison program to unite convicts with retired thoroughbreds can get off the ground. But she was late. And hadn’t called. Ace has had eyes for her ever since their limp meet-cute in the elevator. But pull it together, Chester. I kept waiting for Gus to give Ace some tough love, reminding his boss that he shouldn’t be so enamored with any lady, much less this one. But if anything, Gus came to Claire’s defense. “What are you, her lawyer?” Ace replied.

Fortunately for me, a more pressing issue forced Ace to put back on his game face. Escalante had entered Gus’s prize horse — in other words, Ace’s horse — in tomorrow’s race without letting them know. Leon was slated to ride. When Gus called him on the phone for an explanation, the trainer — who always puts on his Ricky Ricardo act when he talks to the gringos — explained that he only entered the horse as a favor so the track could announce a field of five horses and thus make the race official. He had no intention of actually running the horse… well, maybe there’s like a 10 percent chance the horse could run. Ace saw right through Escalante’s game. “For some people, lying is like breathing.”

The pair dressed for business and confronted Escalante at his barn. The trainer introduced them to their horse’s vet, Jo, who seemed eager to get away from Ace after shaking hands. Ace knew Escalante from his vegetable-stand days; does he have a history with Jo also? Once she fled, Ace cut through the bull, forgetting or not caring that he can’t officially be associated with the horse. If that horse runs, it better have a top jockey aboard, he said, not some unknown bug who might conveniently push the odds higher. (Did anyone notice that Pint of Plain started as a 2-1 favorite? Not exactly a long shot, Turo.) Escalante didn’t appreciate Ace’s insinuations and answered with his own about the horse’s ownership. “For everyone’s happiness, maybe you change your tone of voice,” Escalante said. “Why you stand here breaking my balls?”

“To find out if you’re a gambler or a trainer,” Ace answered back, laying his cards on the table.

“Who told you if you’re one, they throw you out for being the other?” said Escalante, essentially admitting his play.

Ace calmly said if Escalante didn’t agree to swap jockeys in the next 20 minutes, he would be fired. Escalante fired back that they could take their horse right now and stormed off. Sheesh, may Jerry never meet these two at a card table.

Jo tried to reason with Escalante about keeping the promising colt, but her comment that he was mostly angry because he’d been “caught with his pants down” only made his blood boil more. “Be smart with me, I throw you the f— out too,” he bellowed. Jo’s got a little mystery to her, only heightened by her awkward introduction to Ace. There was also the moment before that when she pumped Escalante for information about whether the heralded horse would scratch or run. She might seem like one of the few unblemished characters in Luck but let’s not pretend she doesn’t swim in the same swamp. Remember, even Escalante once suspected her of running her mouth about Mon Gateau after he lost him in the claiming race.

When Ace and Gus returned, Escalante relented, providing a list of the five top jockeys — and another of the five top white jockeys, take that gringos. Ace wanted Pint of Plain to have the best jockey, the best shot for success… tomorrow and long-term. Comprendez? Comprendez.

Meanwhile, back at the run-down motel, Kagle knocked on Marcus and Jerry’s door. For once, he wasn’t in uniform… because he was fired from his job at the track. Someone sold him out, telling his bosses about his little loan-sharking operation. Was it Marcus? Or one of the other Degenerates? Getting no sympathy from his nemesis in the wheelchair, he asked to chat with Jerry alone. The pair ended up at the diner, and Kagle told the saddest of sad stories — which culminated in him dead broke and being arrested for taking a dump in the street — before asking for money. Despite their previous conflicts when the roles had been reversed, Jerry dug into his pocket and passed him a grand as an interest free loan. At the time, I thought, How reassuring that Jerry can so easily make such a gesture. He must have really turned things around at the poker table. But as we soon found out, Jerry is practically busted himself. Marcus had sniffed through his journal, learning that Jerry had already gambled away $286,000 dollars. So what’s with Jerry’s generosity? He’d confided to his diary that he fears he needs mental health treatment, but he proved to be more sensible during this episode than ever before. Maybe he just finally hit rock bottom.

Jerry bolted the hotel after clashing with his roommate, leaving Lonnie and Renzo to take an agitated Marcus to the hospital, where the doctor questioned whether he was taking proper care of himself. “My problem isn’t compliance,” he shot back. “My problem is I’m about to die.” But is that really the case? When Lonnie grabbed Marcus’s medication on their way out the door for the hospital, it sure sounded like there were plenty of unused pills left. The doctor thinks stress is the real issue, not the cardiomyopathy or the fall from a tree at age 11 that put Marcus in the wheelchair in the first place. He prescribed some valium and asked, “Do you have someone you can talk to?”

“A horse,” he answered. Poor sap.

You’d think Marcus (or Kagle) would rank first this week on the Luck Misery Index, but Joey currently leads the pack by a good 10 lengths. Ronnie fired him as his agent, and Leon was bumped from Gus’s horse. In California, a jockey agent can only represent two riders at the same time, so clearly Joey’s not earning much these days. Gus gave Escalante $5,000 to give to Leon as a consolation kiss-off — somewhat surprisingly, both Escalante and Joey didn’t skim from the payout. Joey spent whatever money he had left at the bar, leading him to drunk dial… an ex-wife? He left long messages for Lynn, asking her to dinner, asking about their squirt kid — but his desperation oozed out and you could tell she had good reason for not wanting to call him back. “I’m just gonna stop at PayDay Advance,” he capped one meandering message. “I’m joking, honey, I’m joking.” (He’s not, honey, he’s not!)

NEXT: Marcus’ moment of clarity?

Joey’s in real trouble, but losing Ronnie might be a blessing — he wasn’t riding anytime soon, if ever. Just maybe Rosie could use some official representation…? She’s got at least one moneymaking mount, and success breeds success, does it not? Maybe Leon could steer her towards his foundering boss. Until then, easy on the booze, Joey. Maybe take a valium instead.

The drug proved effective and ultimately cathartic for Marcus, who was glassy-eyed in the motel when Jerry returned from the gambling den. “I feel like I’m drunk…,” Marcus mumbled. “I think I’m queer for you.” (Funny, the thought had crossed my mind.) Jerry’s reaction, however, was extremely understanding, extremely kind, extremely zen — if not 100 percent politically correct. He wasn’t dismissive or uncomfortable delving into the complexity of his friend’s emotions, though he seemed to believe Marcus’s feelings for him were just those of an extraordinary friend. Turns out Jerry’s own concern about Marcus’s coughing fit brought him home before he could lose more money at the poker table, so… let’s go get some food, pal.

I do love the chemistry of the four Degenerates. Jerry and Marcus have almost a Seinfeld and Costanza inter-dependency — you know, if Seinfeld had been directed by Darren Aronofsky. Renzo has a little bit of Cosmo Kramer to him — who can’t imagine Kramer printing up those green Foray Stables t-shirts? — and Lonnie is the legendary Bob Sacamano we never got to meet on the iconic sitcom.

The only relationship on the show that might be tighter is that of Ace and Gus. Normally, their bedroom chats have been the quiet epilogue that wraps up each episode. But last night, their conversation was sandwiched in the middle, allowing Ace to reflect on being stood up by Claire and Gus to gush about his horse’s debut. Both boys didn’t have to wait long to get what they wanted. Claire came calling the next morning, apologizing for her poor etiquette. Ace examined himself in the mirror, but didn’t bother to remove his bathroom robe to greet her. Ah, see, he doesn’t have to pretend with her; he can be himself! Like the racetrack itself, Luck is a boys club, leaving the ladies on the outside looking in. Thus far, there has been very little for the female characters to really do, but I’m not sure I’d mind if this Joan Allen story thread disappeared. I’m bound to be stuck with it for at least another week, as Ace handed her a check — made out to her — for $100,000 more than she originally requested. Not wasting any time, that Ace. For a hundred grand, you bet your ass Claire’s was in the grandstand with Ace when his horse raced later in the day.

Unlike Gettin’up Morning’s heroic dash last week, Pint of Plain’s race had hints of trouble from the get-go. Pint of Plain’s jockey seemed to hold him back after a clean start, and as a result, the horse fell in behind the leaders. The cameras alternated between the horse’s face and the hooves of the horse directly in front of him. When he failed to make up ground on the backstretch, I feared the filmmakers were trying to make the point that the colt was thrown off his game by having dirt kicked in its face — a fatal flaw in any race horse. But it turns out that Pint of Plain has no such defect. The cinematic focus on the pounding hooves was made clear when a shoe flew off the front horse and gashed Pint of Plain in his right hind leg. The horse reacted in pain, but he responded like a champion. But his sudden acceleration only raised viewer concerns that he might injure himself in an on-track incident similar to the one in the pilot. He cruised to victory — he’s a “runnin’ motherf—er” raved Escalante — but there was real relief only when he made it back to the barn and a calm Jo explained plans for x-rays and an ultrasound. Ace wasn’t about to leave his prize and joy alone, though, sending Gus and Claire home and curling up against the stall for the night. “How are we supposed to pretend any more it’s not his horse,” wondered Jo, as Ace drifted to sleep.

So that’s how the episode ended: Ace with his pony, Escalante spooning with Jo on his office cot, the Degenerates at peace, and Joey hanging by a thread. Walter, the mysterious Mike Smythe, and whiz-kid Nathan Israel got the week off, apparently. Did you enjoy this kinder-gentler episode of Luck? Is it simply the calm before the storm? Who ranks highest on your Luck Misery Index? My top three: Joey, Kagle, Leon.

If you have more questions about the show or the sport of horse racing, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has been managing a Twitter conversation (#LuckChat) every Monday night at 9 p.m. ET. Noted track experts have been participating, as well as actors from the show, including John Ortiz, Tom Payne, and Gary Stevens. Check it out.

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