Wednesday, February 22, 2012

As Luck Would Have It: Nuts Get Rocked Off

Editor's Note: This is the second Luck entry from a writer new to the fold, Wordy G. He is a modern day Bukowski, both with the pen and his penchant for pony-related degeneracy. He knows of what he speaks when it comes to horse-racing, a particularly useful trait when it comes to sussing out what's going down on the newest David Milch skein. If you missed it, the first entry can be found here.  

Hollywood doesn't make them like they used to. An occasional nugget slips through the cracks now and again, like a penguin egg making the journey to fully fledged baby penguin, it's a God damn miracle. Thankfully, television has been a welcome refuge for producers, directors, and actors who seek the latitude to create something with more depth, nuance, and character than the usual slag playing for the rubes down at the multiplex.

One side effect of keeping the story Holy is the subtle change from "episode" television to "novel" television. Quality "episode" TV features crackling scripts that deliver the goods over the course of one episode. Drama. Tension. Climax. Drama resolved. Teaser for next week. Shows like Boardwalk Empire, Treme, and Luck trend more towards the "novel" formula. Weekly episodes tend to set up future pay-offs down the road (or, maybe foreplay with no release in the case of Treme). Each show is merely a 60 minute chapter of a larger narrative. The novel approach is a much more difficult proposition to get your arms around. It requires a bit more effort from the viewer. A little discipline to ride out the set up and patiently wait for the pay off.

In Luck episode # 4, the pay-off begins. Written by long-time Daily Racing Form reporter Jay Hovdey (who happens to be married to the most successful female jockey of all-time, Julie Krone), two scenes in particular rocked my nuts off.

The first, involved the maiden race for Walter Smith's horse Getting Up Morning.  The race comes at the middle of the episode, and is right up there with Roy Hobbs blasting home runs, Jimmy Chitwood draining jumpers, or Rocky training for Apollo Creed as far as goose-bump producing sports moments in entertainment go. At the start of the race, Getting Up Morning gets left at the gate. In racing parlance, this means he missed the break, and spots the field a massive head start. When a horse "gets left at the gate" in real life, 99 out of 100 times you assume there is no way the horse can win. Most races are run at a distance of just under a mile, with the distance between the first place horse and the second place measured in "lengths," which is about 8 feet. It takes approximately 1/5th of a second for a horse to cover a length. Even the slightest bit of unfortunate luck, being carried a few paths wide on the turn, having to slow down for a moment because another horse impedes progress, or a million other hard to predict circumstances can mean the difference between winning the race by a length or two, or completely running out of the money. To spot the field six or seven lengths at the start of the race is certain doom.  However, Getting Up Morning rallies from the horrendous start and wins the race going away. This impressive feat is made more so by the fact that it is Getting Up Morning's first career race.

It's all filmed with a nod towards epic. Slow motion sequences. A soaring score. The works. The awe and wonder shown on the faces of the degenerate gamblers, the tears in Walter Smith's eyes, Escalante referring to the horse as "a freak," are emblematic of the shock wave the horse's performance sends through the track at Santa Anita, and thru our TV screens. Secretariat lost his first race, but overcame a very troubled trip that signaled to many that he was going to be a great horse. In Gettting Up Morning's unlikely victory, Luck creator David Milch has sent the same signal.

I'll be a little disappointed if Milch walks us down the obvious path towards Ace Bernstein's horse vs. Walter Smith's horse. It seems inevitable, but with Milch's penchant for frustrating the viewer, we shall see.

I wish to Christ himself HBO had made the clip available, because its electric enough that you should see it.  Seek it out if you can.

A couple of inside horse racing points. After the race, it is apparent that Getting Up Morning has bled through his nose. This is fairly common in horse racing. Horses have such huge lungs, they are susceptible to bleeding from the exertion of a race. A typical treatment for bleeding is use of a legal drug called Lasix.  Nothing untoward is going on here. The vet examines Getting Up Morning and declares that the bleeding wasn't too severe. Some 'bleeders' have problems racing at longer distances, but typically Lasix works for the vast majority.

Also, the final time of the race is one minute, seven seconds, and change. This is an extremely fast winning time for a six furlong maiden race. Were this to occur in real life, it would be duly noted by the horse racing  press, and Getting Up Morning would begin to appear on all the Kentucky Derby watch lists.

Lastly, I've seen comments on some boards squawking about a horse coming from behind not being all that unusual. Don't believe such misguided slander. Coming from off the pace isn't unusual, but winning after missing the break and spotting the rest of the field a huge lead is exceedingly rare.

The second magic moment is the initial meeting between Ace Bernstein and Michael (Michael Gambon, better knows as Steve Zissou's erstwhile financier in The Life Aquatic). The back story indicates they were former partners of some sort, until Michael gigged Ace by putting him in a Sophie's Choice situation where Ace was forced to take a cocaine possession rap and time in prison to protect a family member. The first 3 episodes have been a prelude to this relationship, with dark hints and clues to Ace's ultimate plan for revenge. The first scene with the two men in the same frame doesn't disappoint. I particularly enjoyed the absurd ballet of the meeting, Ace initially refuses to be seated, and I held high hopes that he would take the meeting standing. He relents, and Michael one-ups him by waltzing across the room, and swinging a leg over the edge of a sofa, not quite sitting, not quite standing, but an odd straddle that still leaves him elevated above Ace. The dialogue is pure Milch, with equal parts profanity and poetry. The ultimate impact is that Michael comes off as one scary motherfucker. Ace will have his hands full trying to get over. It should be glorious to watch unfold.

Don't sleep on Luck. Below is HBO's recap of the first 4 episodes.

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