In horse-racing terms, HBO's new drama "Luck" breaks poorly.
If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, get used to it. "Luck" (8 p.m. Jan. 29, HBO; 3 stars) is a sometimes confusing yet fascinating study of the colorful characters—the jockeys, trainers, owners, gamblers and railbirds—who populate horse-racing tracks.
You just may need a glossary of racing and gambling terms to understand it. (A railbird, by the way, is a fan who watches from the sideline rail. To break poorly means the horse starts a race slowly.)
As the series begins, mobster Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) leaves federal prison with vengeance on his mind. He’s picked up by his driver/bodyguard, Gus (Dennis Farina), who fronts as the owner of a $2 million Irish thoroughbred purchased by Ace and which, it seems, ties into his payback scheme.
Exactly what that scheme is remains as murky as the racing/gambling lingo. Creator David Milch (“Deadwood,” “John From Cincinnati”) and director/exec producer Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Miami Vice”) show as little concern with conventional plotting as they do with, you know, helping the audience understand what’s going on. Instead, they introduce us to a sordid assortment of racetrack folks who serve as the narrative framework of the story.
This seeming disregard for viewers could be unlucky for “Luck” because mainstream audiences are not really a patient lot. Yet if viewers hang on long enough to watch an emotional and beautifully filmed race in the fourth episode, they, like me, might become absolutely smitten with the story and its characters—each of whom embodies some instance of luck and the obsession, dedication and sometimes addiction behind it.
Horse owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) is haunted by past mistakes but seeks redemption in his new horse, a champ in the making that young exercise rider Rosie (Kerry Condon) would like to race as its jockey. A trainer named Escalante (John Ortiz) knows how to work some shady deals as well has the horses, but he can’t figure out how to do right by the track veterinarian (Jill Hennessy) he won’t admit he loves. Down-on-his-luck agent Joey (Richard Kind) can’t get a gig for his client, Leon (Tom Payne), who struggles to keep his weight down, while he can’t get rid of his former client Ronnie (former jockey turned actor Gary Stevens), who is trying to stay sober. Finally, a quartet of gamblers (Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick and Ian Hart) who live in a fleebag motel near the track exist on the hope that betting gives them.
(If you notice an overwhelming ratio of male to female characters, don’t be surprised. Milch and Mann are nothing if not masters of hyper-masculine storytelling. Their works just oozes testosterone; another theme of “Luck” seems to be the oft-unspoken, platonic love that fuels male friendships.)
As expected, Hoffman is great as Ace, barely hiding his venegeful fury under a calm façade, but also showing surprising tenderness when he meets his horse. Chicago native Farina delivers one of his best performances that I’ve seen. Gus is Ace’s enforcer, yet Farina injects humanity and humor in nearly every scene. Kind plays the agent Joey as a man who slowly realizes that no matter how hard he works, he will never be able to create his own luck. It’s heartbreaking.
Dunn and Gedrick deserve a shout-out as well. Heck, they all do. “Luck” has so many great performances I wonder how, come awards time, any other show will be able to compete for space on the nominee lists.
“Luck” also benefits from brilliant cinematography and striking sense of place, and those amazing horse races. Mann sets the bar for the directors of later episodes with his beautifully filmed race in the premiere.
So if nothing else, stick around for the horses and their races. I've now finished the nine-episode first season, and I can assure you that it gallops through the eighth pole and across the wire. (Oh, sorry: The eighth pole is marker indicating an eighth of a mile to the wire. The wire, of course, is the finish line. See the glossary below.)
"LUCK" GLOSSARY PROVIDED BY HBO
Agents: Three types: Owner's, Jockey's and Bloodstock. An Owner's agent would be his racing manager, dealing with business regarding the trainers and administrative duties. The Jockey's agent represents his client in procurement of mounts. Bloodstock agents buy and sell horses either privately or at auction sales.
Backstretch: The straight-away on the far side of the track.
Blood Horse: Refers to a Thoroughbred Race Horse used for breeding purposes.
Breeder: The person who owns the Mare (mother) at the time a horse is foaled.
Breezing: A workout in which the horse is asked to run at full stride for a specific distance as part of fitness training.
Bug Boy: An apprentice jockey, so named for the asterisk, or "bug," that follows the jockey's name in the racing guide to indicate his weight allowance.
Claim Slip: Slip that is filled out in order to place an official claim on a horse.
Claiming Race: Race in which horses are entered subject to being claimed or purchased for a price specified before the start of the race.
Clerk of Scales: Official whose main duty is to oversee the Jockey's Room, verifying their weight before (weighing "out") and after races (weighing "in").
Clocker: Person who records workout times either independently (private clocker) or for publication in the Racing Form.
Colic: Abdominal distress caused by gas in the horse's intestinal tract.
Colt: An ungelded male horse four years or under.
Crop: Whip used by jockeys.
Condition Book: A book published by the Racing Secretary, usually every ten days to two weeks, offering different categories of races in which the trainers may enter their horses.
Dead Heat: Two or more horses finishing at the exact time, with no winner distinguishable in a photo finish.
Drifting Out: When a horse fails to follow a straight path and heads toward the outside of the track.
Exercise rider: A person who rides horses in workouts and gallops, may be larger than a jockey.
Filly: Female horse four years old or younger.
Flak Jacket: Required protective jacket worn by jockeys during a race.
Foal: Newborn male or female horse.
Furlong: One-eighth of a mile.
Groom: Person responsible for virtually all of the care of an individual horse in the stable. Usually one groom takes care of three horses.
Handicapping: Assignment of weights by the Racing Secretary to entrants based on their race records in an effort to level the playing field; also, a bettor's assessment based on past performance of horses in order to make selections.
Hot Walk: Walking a horse after a workout or race to cool them down. Person who does this is known as a Hot Walker.
In the Money: A horse that earns purse money in a race, usually the first four or five finishers. For bettors, called "hitting the board," it refers to the horses that finish in the first three positions, win (first), place (second) or show (third), and in the case of some exotic bets, fourth or fifth.
Maiden: A horse that has never won a race. Maiden Special Weight races are "allowance" type races and are for horses which may not be claimed. In Maiden Claiming races the horses may be claimed.
"Leche": Spanish slang for Milk of Magnesia; medicine given to horses to ease colic or other gastrointestinal distress.
Mount: The horse that a jockey rides in a particular race.
Paymaster: Also known as the Horseman's Bookkeeper, distributes earnings and administrates any functions regarding monies.
Pick Six: A wager where a bettor picks winning horses in a series of six consecutive races. Bet must be placed before the start of the first race in the series. Variations are Pick Three, Four or Five, all of which are extensions of race track standard, the Daily Double, which originally required picking the first two winners of the day.
Poles: Track markers that indicate distance on the track. Measured in Half, Quarter and Sixteenth of a mile increments.
Post Position: Pre-assigned position from which a horse will leave the starting gate, determined in a random draw by the Racing Office staff when the horses are entered.
Purse: Money competed for in a race. Distributed to owners of horses who finish in the top four or five, usually 60% for first, 20% for second, 10% for third and in some jurisdictions may pay back to fourth, fifth and sometimes last.
Racing Secretary: Official who drafts the conditions of races and is responsible for handling of entries and all other matters concerning the racing program. Also assigns weights for handicapped events and oversees selection of races to be run.
Railbird: A horseracing enthusiast; term is derived from habit of someone who watches the races from the outer rail of the track.
Scratch: A horse that is withdrawn before the start of the race.
Shake: Occurs when one or more people put in a claim for the same horse; winner of the shake (random drawing of names) becomes the horse's owner.
Shed Row: The interior walkway in a horse barn.
Silks: Also referred to as "colors," uniquely patterned jacket/shirt worn by the jockey and unique to the owner.
Starter: The official responsible for overseeing the starting gate and the beginning of each race. The Head Starter presses the button that releases the starting gates. Assistant Starters handle the horses as they load into the gate.
Syndicate: In betting, a group of people who pool their money in order to make larger, more comprehensive bets; in Racing, a group owning an individual horse, sharing expense and income; in Breeding, group ownership of a stallion or other bloodstock.
Track Condition: Conditions on the track can affect a horse's performance. These can be designated as: Fast, Good, Slow, Muddy, Sloppy or for Turf races, Firm, Yielding, Soft, etc.
Trainer: Person who oversees the care and conditioning of horses in preparation for races. Second in command is an Assistant Trainer.
Vigorish: Or "the vig"; a percentage of a bet, the amount charged for placing a bet with a bookmaker (bookie), usually 10%.
TYPES OF WAGERS
- Win: The bettor collects if horse finishes first only.
- Place: The bettor collects if horse finishes first or second.
- Show: The bettor collects if horse finishes first, second or third.
"Exotic" bets (also referred to as "Gimmick" bets)
- Daily Double: Two consecutive winners picked on same ticket.
- Pick Three, Four Five or Six: Consecutive winners selected on same ticket.
- Quinella: A bet in which you must select the first two horses, regardless of the order in which they finish the race.
- Exacta: Horses must finish first and second in order. A "box" bet takes them in either order i.e., a 5-2 exacta played straight is one bet, requires they finish in that order, a "box" is a second bet, reversing the order to 2-5 so the ticket is good if they finish either way.
- Trifecta: Horses must finish first, second and third in exact order. Superfecta and Pentafecta are further variations in which the horses finish first through fourth or fifth.
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