Wednesday, February 15, 2012

As Luck Would Have It: An Entry Point

For the uninitiated, horse racing presents a byzantine code that often takes hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to learn. School is in session on virtually every night, with poor, sad, magnificent bastards bent over Daily Racing Forms looking for clues. Sessions continue virtually every day, with boozy afternoons spent betting the races. Several unserious media types have decried the relatively impenetrable inside horse racing plot twists and angles as an impediment to enjoying Luck, the new HBO series produced by David Milch, directed by Mike Mann, and featuring Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and a bunch of horses. As someone who happens to have paid that horse racing tuition (and remains involved in a continuing education capacity to this very day), I’m here to help flesh out some of the broad strokes that Luck assumes viewers will recognize.

Come on though. It’s Milch. What else do you need to know? A Yale Grad, with an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and according to legend, his father was a doctor who possibly performed some operations on big time mob wise guys. Milch is my kind of intellectual. Whipsaw smart. Ultimately accessible. A man of letters who also grasps the seedier corners of culture. Deadwood, my all-time favorite television show in the non-Wire category, is infamous for its ornate and vulgar language. Characters routinely spouted tapestries of brilliant dialogue that sounded like a mash up of Shakespeare and Charles Bukowski. Milch writes with one foot in the gutter, and one foot in baby’s breath. 

Appropriately, Luck takes place at Santa Anita Park, which remains the epicenter of horse racing west of Louisville. For those of you unfamiliar with horse culture, the track is a perfect marker for exploring and contrasting the lives of the 1% and the 99. From million dollar horse owners in Savile Row suits, to degenerate hobo’s shuffling the grandstands searching for cigarette butts and mistakenly discarded winning tickets, and all points in-between, the track has the Americana caste system covered.   

Luck, which expects much from its audience, beams the viewer right into the grandstands at Santa Anita. Over the course of the first three episodes, significant plot developments have hinged on track life that require some working knowledge of horse racing to fully appreciate. HBO conveniently provides decoding for some of the horse culture lingo, like apprentice jockeys who are called bug boys, and a summary of a lottery ticket type bet, The Pick Six. Four degenerate gamblers, who comprise a perverted Greek chorus of sorts in the series, happen to score $2 million dollars by winning the Pick Six in episode one.

Another key element is the concept of claiming races. There are several types of races in horse racing. Big time stakes races like the Kentucky Derby for example. You may see races like this on network TV. Races that take place after a poignant vignette featuring colts galloping in a field, misty eyes, an American flag flapping gently in the breeze, shots of extremely rich and extremely old white people, and Nick Lachey, all played underneath a solemn essay/ode to Americana read by Jack Whitaker, are the really important races. If the race is on a cable channel, and proceeded by an ESPN’s porcine jowled Hank Goldberg, contributing specious gambling advice, it’s merely a significant race. Big stakes races take place relatively infrequently. The three Triple Crown races take place over the course of one month from the first Saturday in May thru the first Saturday in June. The Breeder’s Cup races take place over two days in late October. Horse racing isn’t for everybody, but you have to be pretty jaded not to be somewhat moved by this type of drama. Pay attention at the 1:40 mark, and hang on thru the slow-mo replays a minute later to get an appreciation for what happens. At the very least, it will give you some perspective for what kind of reality Milch is trying to re-create in the series.

Racing doesn’t subsist on the Triple Crown races alone. The bread and butter of the everyday grind in horse racing, typically 10 races a day, 5 days a week at major tracks, is the claiming race.

In a claiming race, every horse is for sale. If you have a horse license (which, barring a felony or bestiality priors on your record, is easier to get than a HEB point’s rewards card) and cold hard cash, you have all you need to buy your very own race horse. The “claiming” or “sale” price is an efficient way for tracks to ensure that horses of similar caliber are running against each other. If you valued your horse at 20k, you wouldn’t enter it in a “claiming” race for 10k. You might be tempted, because it would be an easy way to win the purse for the race. But you would almost certainly have your horse “claimed” by another owner, for half its value. You might enter it in a race with a claiming price for 30k. Your horse may need a lot of luck to win, but even if someone did claim it, you’d get 10k more than you valued him for a sale price.

If the horsey business is making it difficult for you to find an entry point to the series, comment and I’ll be happy to expound. 

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