Wednesday, March 7, 2012

As Luck Would Have It: Horses, Humanity's Last Hope

"I have seen people profoundly changed simply by being in the proximity of horses. Their size, their virtue, their complicated nature bring out patience and respect. Don't be afraid of that Chester." 
                    "Afraid of what?" asks Ace.

                    "Of everything that can be."

On its shiny surface, Luck reads like a wise-guy revenge series. The Sopranos meets Guys and Dolls. The viewer is (in most cases) given just enough information to vaguely grasp Ace Bernstein's general plans for revenge with his former business partner Mike. The cornucopia of dysfunction at the track is merely background noise to the chess match between Ace and Michael. However, the exchange above between Ace (Dustin Hoffman) and Claire (Joan Allen) gets at the blood and marrow of the series. Redemption via animal. Horse's humanity to man. Why not? You've seen what happened on Super Tuesday. Horses may be humanity's last hope.

Milch veers from his pattern of building each episode around a signature race, and in chapter six blesses us with two. Although lacking the drama of previous races, the cinematography is outstanding. As someone who has literally watched a shit-ton of horse races, I'm stunned by how close Luck comes to getting the feel of a live horse race. Typically, sports re-creations in movies or television series are embarrassingly faux. Not so with Luck.

The degenerate bastards who comprise Foray Stables are forced to sweat through an "inquiry" in their horse Mon Gateau's race. One measure against blatant in-your-face crookedness in horse racing is the fact that each race is filmed, reviewed, and watched live by three stewards. Referees. A retirement gig of sorts for the more honest backside track officials. If they see something unfair, like a horse crossing over into another horse's path, cutting in line so to speak, they have the power to disqualify the offender. It's a heavy penalty for all involved, but it happens regularly. If you've spent anytime betting horses, you've either been victimized, or somehow less frequently it seems, benefited from a horse who gets taken down. It can turn a winning ticket into a loser, or vice-versa. Like officiating in any sport, the rulings seem inconsistent and spiteful. Not so much officials, these stewards, as they are Gods on Mt. Olympus with us as playthings. Leaving the results as-is for Mon Gateau seemed liked rare justice to me. For what it's worth, jockeys have the ability to throw a flag on the play by lodging a formal "objection" after the race. Objections are seen as less honest than inquiries. 

The second race of the episode featured Walter Smith's (Nick Nolte) Kentucky Derby contender Gettin' Up Morning. Getting Up Morning sets the track record for 1 mile at Santa Anita*. The real drama is the conniption fit that Nolte has when he sees the jockey use the whip on Getting Up Morning down the stretch. Why the bluster you ask? In the US, jockeys use the whip with about as much discretion and subtlety as Odd Future or LMFAO apply to the art of music. Horses get whipped because the jockey is bored, because the owner is in attendance, because the horse is drifting one way, because the horse is drifting the other way, and maybe because a 115 lb jockey whipping a 1500 lb horse can cause it to run faster. In Europe, whipping is much less prevalent, and tightly controlled by the stewards. Europe is pretty cool by most accounts. Nolte is likely chapped because he's painfully old school, cares about his horse (to be truthful, owners of big time stakes caliber horses aren't thrilled about seeing their million dollar investments whipped), and possibly because he wants to save that first time whipping a horse until it really needs the shock and awe it may provide. Legend has it that Affirmed bested his rival Alysheba in the 1978 Belmont stakes because jock Steve Cauthen threw a precious few left handed whips on Affirmed at a crucial point in the stretch drive. It was supposedly the first time Cauthen had whipped Affirmed on his left side.

*In reality, the 1 mile record at Santa Anita is held by Ruhlman, in a time of 1.33.25, which is a full second slower than Mon Gateau's time, or about 5 lengths.

I fucking love this series. I love the Miles Davis riffs that bubbled underneath some of the dark early scenes in this episode. I love seeing real life horse trainer Bob Baffert in background shots. I love Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens acting his ass off as the insufferable prick jock Ronnie. Thankfully, HBO has renewed for Season 2. I'm eager to see what happens when Luck gets some racing room and really hits its stride.

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