By Tony Palmisano
‘Luck’ had me from the very first scene.
“No ifs ands or buts,” Ace Bernstein says to his driver Gus Demitriou. “Do you think you are the first front in history?”
I was totally hooked; TKO by writer David Milch.
Racehorse owner Milch is no stranger to the track and deftly weaves a compelling story as he takes viewers into the provocative world of horse racing. Director Michael Mann assembled a star studded cast to support the storylines, led by Oscar Award winner Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman plays savvy wise guy Ace Bernstein, just released after serving three years in prison. The ultimate deal maker, Ace has been involved with various gambling enterprises for most of his life. His latest venture is to use Santa Anita Park and racing’s current issues as a means to settling a score.
The problem with Luck is that it’s too good.
The characters we are introduced to are too real. Golden Globe winner Nick Nolte plays Kentucky hard boot trainer Walter Smith, whose bay colt has both the pedigree and ability to be a champion.
It’s a second chance for Smith (maybe Nolte, too, for that matter), a weathered trainer-turned-owner. Smith is cautiously hopeful that his promising colt Gettn'up Morning is his ticket back to the big time, his optimism tempered by unrevealed secrets from a past scandal.
Isn’t that the overwhelming theme of Luck? Second chances? Isn’t that what makes Luck so compelling and so sad at the same time? Only Luck does what “Let it Ride” never did; perpetuate the stereotype that the race track is a place for losers and degenerates.
Milch, drawing on his personal experiences, understand that winning often isn’t the ultimate goal of grandstand gamblers: It’s all about the action.
Jason Gedrick’s character Jerry Boyle leads the crew of gamblers; we come to know as the four amigos. They hit the Pick 6 for over $2 million dollars in Episode 1 but little has changed for these likable losers in future episodes. They live to gamble.
Nowhere are second chances and hope more prevalent than on the race track. Gerry is a railbird with a genuine gift for handicapping horses who happens to have a profound weakness: high stakes poker.
Every race track has its grandstand crew of these “railbirds.” In fact, my good friend, former Cleveland Plain Dealer turf writer Bob Roberts, called his daily racing column “The Railbird.”
One of Milch’s more fascinating characters is that of trainer Turo Escalante, played with great attention by actor John Ortiz. Escalante is a good horseman, so good that he’s been entrusted with the care and training of
Ace’s two million dollar horse.
Escalante is a Peruvian immigrant who worked his way up to becoming a gifted horse trainer, his reputation for success matched only by his often questionable tactics. But as we saw in the first episode, Escalante’s motivation is to cash a bet, a trait found on every shed row.
Jockey Agent Joey Rathburn is played by Richard Kind, the nervous and jittery jock’s agent whose daily job is to hustle mounts for his riders while dolling out advice to his “bug boy,” Leon, the apprentice rider.
Rathburn’s stammer and anxious manner make him a likeable, empathetic hustler type.
Luck paints a picture of real life and the daily struggles of the many people who derive their living from a beautiful sport. Unfortunately, for the non-racing fan Luck, it can be difficult to follow with its insider speak and race track terminology.
Indeed, so much so that terms are explained at the end of some episodes to help viewers navigate the world of racing and gambling.
No group struggles more than the men and women who ride these majestic thoroughbreds. If it’s not recovery from drug and alcohol abuse fueled by the lure of easy money then it’s an escape from the dangerous nature of their work, one that often requires rehabilitation from serious injury, or worse.
Santa Anita Park is the perfect backdrop for Luck. It’s one of the most beautiful racetracks in America and Luck gives us insight into the beautiful and not so beautiful people who populate it. If you’ve spent a few days at the races, you probably recognize many of the Milch’s characters.
Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens plays Ronnie Jenkins, an aging broken down jockey who’s trying to make a comeback. In episode 3 we find Ronnie still fighting his inner demons after a spill leaves him with a broken collarbone.
Stevens, who played jockey George Woolf in the movie “Seabiscuit,” delivers many of Luck’s hard hitting and memorable lines: After watching his agent’s bug boy Leon’s mount break down, Stevens turns to the young rider and offers a consolation: “You never get used to it, that’s why they make Jim Beam.”
I can’t speak for everyone but I’m rooting for Ace, Jerry, Mr. Smith, Escalante, Joey and Leon. If there really is a racing god, I’d like these storylines to unfold more fully in future episodes of Luck.
I hope the “Four Amigos” win a stakes race with Mon Gateau; that Jerry beats the ”ricers” at the poker table and that the venerable Mr. Smith saddles Gettn’up Morning to a Derby win.
I also hope veteran jockey Ronnie Jenkins gets his life back on track; that the acerbic Escalante wins the Santa Anita Derby and that Ace exacts his revenge. But much of that would be anti-profile for a Milch drama.
Am I asking for too much Luck? I hope not. No matter where the storylines lead this season, we could all use a little more of that elusive commodity.