An earthquake rocks Santa Anita, and Ace Bernstein puts his cards on the table

By Jeff Labrecque
March 05, 2012 at 06:24 AM EST
HBO
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It took six episodes of Luck, but Ace Bernstein is letting us in. Sort of. Dustin Hoffman’s well-connected ex-con is still a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but he finally clued us in to what this is all about. Revenge. But the new question might be: Does he still have what it takes to go through with it?

Last week, Ace skipped his traditional episode-capping chat with Gus — and an opportunity to kiss Claire LeChea goodnight — to sleep in the barn next to his injured racehorse. Nuzzling with an equine may have been a cathartic experience for the recently released convict, but it probably wasn’t the most comfortable night. Looking worse for wear, he winced getting out of his car the next morning and barked at Gus for spending his own night in the track parking lot. Was he just being grouchy? Or is there something dark rattling inside Ace’s skull?

Nathan Israel met them in the hotel lobby, ready for his first meeting with the devious Mike Smythe. Ace muttered to Gus that he had to give the kid his “final marching papers” before the pow-wow. Marching papers? He meant marching orders, didn’t he? (Marching papers, as in being fired. Marching orders, meaning detailed instruction.) A Freudian slip on Ace’s part, perhaps? Is Nathan merely a pawn in Ace’s game, and if so, how easily will he sacrifice him?

Upstairs in the penthouse, a gift awaited Gus, congratulating him on his horse’s big victory: a giant cake from their business frenemies that read “Wait to Go Greek!” Perhaps it was a simple icing error by the seven-bucks-an-hour cake maker, as Nathan suggested, but the typo was the first tremor of the episode. It shook up Ace, who asked not so innocently, “You going somewhere I don’t know about?” Only the thought of Claire and roses cleared the ugly cloud from inside Ace’s head, but once Gus was alone with his cake, he whispered, “No icing error this.”

At the track, the Degenerates readied themselves for a big day. Mon Gateau was back on the track and the quartet came bearing gifts to their pony’s team on race day: Foray Stables t-shirts (P.S.: I want one). Escalante and Jo didn’t seem to hear a word of Renzo’s adorable/cheesy gesture — the trainer was probably only thinking of the race ahead, and Jo, well, she seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. Until a woman at the pay phone screamed, waking Jo from her trance. While she rushed to the woman’s side, Escalante took the opportunity to skip away, from the Degenerates and from her. “Bad news, probably,” said Renzo. “Maybe a wrong number,” retorted Marcus.

Speaking of bad news, we’ve been waiting for something tragic ever since we saw Joey put a gun to his head in the teaser that followed last week’s episode. Joey watched the early morning workouts at the track from the distance of his car. Leon, who wasn’t riding any horses, spotted him and gave him a cold look. The track’s big names — Bob Baffert! — hobnobbed, but Joey Rathburn sat alone, an outsider, a loser. Later, we saw the gun again, resting on Joey’s nightstand after another pathetic phone call with one of the Real Housewives of Santa Anita. His ex finally picked up but couldn’t have cared less about Joey’s welfare, hanging up on him at his moment of need. But before he could make all his pain go away with a bullet to the brain, the earth shook. Literally. An earthquake interrupted his suicide but caused him to shoot an errant bullet that ricocheted twice before slicing through his cheek. At the hospital, the doctor who stitched him up expressed skepticism about his “accident.” But the near miss seemed to have a positive effect on Joey – a shakubuku, if you will. Miraculously, even his stammer disappeared. He quickly checked himself out, cleaned himself up, and went to Red’s bar, where all the track’s motley characters hang. “Good evening, one and all,” he announced as if he were Olivier, before trying to rub his recent reversal of fortune in Ronnie’s face with a tongue-twisting nursery rhyme. It was sweet while it lasted.

Armed only with Ace’s marching orders, Nathan went into the belly of the beast: Smythe’s yacht. DeRossi and Cohen were there, too, and it didn’t take long for Smythe to make his play, dismissing Nathan as an errand boy for Mr. Bern-stein and appealing to naked greed and ambition. He suggested the kid raise his prospects by working both sides of this deal; Nathan apparently agreed while hinting that the key to the $475 million dollar to purchase the racetrack was Ace’s coziness with the Indian Gaming Lobby, which would have to approve any effort to bring slots and tables to Santa Anita.

Meanwhile, Ace himself was meeting with Santa Anita’s owner (Jürgen Prochnow), who didn’t quite welcome Ace’s minority stake but didn’t seem too threatened by the rumors of Ace’s interest in purchasing the track. “I think maybe, Mr. Bernstein, something else is going on here,” he said. “Something personal. And my track is only the stage where it all plays out.”

“That’s some good thinking,” Ace responded after a beat. Now we’re getting somewhere.

NEXT: A rough go for the bug jockeys

On the track, Mon Gateau went to the gate — but only after Renzo wisely voted against his own proposal to scratch because of the disruptive earthquake. In the last turn, their horse, with Leon aboard, ran down the two leaders, but there was some heavy bumping before Mon Gateau outran them to the wire. A protest was lodged, and the track stewards conducted an inquiry to see if Leon had ridden recklessly. And though it seemed as if he may have, the stewards surprised everyone by stamping the race official. Leon had dodged a bullet.

Before the Degenerates rolled in to the winner’s circle, Escalante couldn’t help but marvel at the winning horse, almost like a lovesick teenager. “This horse maybe got brokedown legs, but he run with good horse’s heart,” he said, with wide eyes like Alec taking in the Black Stallion. Remember, this is the one that got away, the moneymaker Escalante foolishly lost in the claiming race. You could almost see the pain course through him when he learned that Goose had a minority interest in the colt.

The next day, it was Gettin’up Morning’s turn, but Walter had troubles on his mind. Remember that horrible scion of Kentucky racing royalty that murdered Morning’s pappy for the $30 million insurance policy? Well, he’s now challenging Walter’s ownership of the prize horse, claiming his father-in-law, the Colonel, wasn’t in his right mind when he gifted the colt to Walter. Clearly distracted, Walter urged Rosie to sit tight and let the horse do the work. But let’s not forget Joey’s drunken ramblings from a few weeks back: she’s got a bulls-eye on her back and every big-name jockey would love to replace her aboard this Triple Crown threat. So when she ran into a little trouble and felt boxed in on both sides, she went to the whip. Morning responded accordingly, sprinting away from the field and setting a course record. A track official compared the sensational performance to the great Man O’War and Rosie was practically giddy as she steered Morning to the winner’s circle. But Walter angrily snatched her whip out of her hand and dumped it in the trash. This was not what he wanted. Not now anyway. Later at the barn, Walter was calmer, but no less disappointed. “I’m not saying we’ve ruined him,” he told a teary-eyed Rosie. “It just wouldn’t be what should’ve been done… Track record… it’s gonna get crazy now.”

Like crazy, RIGHT NOW. That dark shadow sneaking though the stables? “How’s my horse?” said the shadow, who can only be that litigious son-in-law. Lawyer-up, Walter, and maybe find one better than the part-time trainer Rosie suggested.

Escalante and Jo were still not connecting, ever since he fled the screaming woman. Turns out the woman’s 12-year-old son had been killed in Mexico; Jo gave her some money so she could travel home for the funeral. Escalante scoffed at the gesture, speculating that the woman wouldn’t be allowed to get back into the U.S. and her family would subsequently go hungry without her American paycheck. At the stable at the end of the night, they continued dancing around some bigger issue. He was his typical selfish adolescent self; she was clearly talking about more than the horse, more than the Mexican mother. “Stay the f— away from me,” she finally said, a threat he’d probably heard before. But as she walked away, she conveniently confided only in us, “I’m knocked up, you stupid bastard.”

Nathan checked back in with Ace and Gus for a debriefing after his meeting with Smythe. The yacht club took the bait: Ace actually has no understanding with the Indian lobby. Nathan told Ace about Smythe’s offer for duplicity and that he accepted. “If I’m going to feel sick all the time, I don’t know if I’m going to want to do this,” admitted Nathan.

“Feel sick?” asked Ace. “’Cause you’re on honest man… so far.”

Gus, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to feel sick by this business. We’ve always been led to believe that his only loyalty is to Ace, but perhaps Ace is now having doubts. During their traditional late-night chat, Gus drifted off, and Ace snapped at his pal, “Don’t pretend to have a conversation with me! Go to bed.” Gus slunk back to his room with his tail between his legs. These two men have been like brothers — I’m greatly looking forward to learning more about their early history together — but Ace seems to have growing suspicions. Had Gus been spying on him that night at the stable? Was “Wait to Go Greek” a secret message from Smythe’s camp? Did Gus promise them something when they arranged for his million-dollar slot payout while Ace was still in the slammer?

“I’ve seen people profoundly changed simply by being in proximity to horses,” Claire told Ace on their romantic date. “Their size, their virtue, their complicated nature bring out patience and respect. Don’t be afraid of that, Chester.” Leading me — and Ace? — to wonder, has his infatuation with his horse profoundly changed his own nature? “What is f—ing wrong with me?” Ace said to himself after sending Gus to bed without any dessert. Is he feeling pangs of conscience about his mission for revenge against the men who sent him to prison for three years. Does his horse and Claire represent a better future for him, a better chance for happiness? Or was he simply referring to his recent suspicions of Gus, that he can’t believe that he would ever really question his closest confidante? In a recent interview with the New York Times, Dustin Hoffman said, “We don’t know how bad Ace is. We don’t know whether he has ever killed anyone. I don’t know the answer.”

I think we’re going to find out.

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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