Luck’s Fortunes: As HBO’s horse-racing show hits its final stretch, get through the ‘last legs’ jokes and just watch

Dustin Hoffman plays Ace, for the second-last time. ()
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The puns spring eternal, once you learn that 'Luck' was canceled suddenly last week, after the show’s third horse fatality halted its production for good.

There’s the idea of luck running out, last legs, and all the rest. None of these are particularly funny or original, which hasn’t stopped those covering or commenting on the story from deploying such jokes.

More meaningfully, though, a viewer can’t shake the knowledge of this latest tragic incident while watching the last two episodes of the first—and now only—season of the show. (The first episode of season two had already been shot and edited, but apparently will not air. HBO will finish airing the first season in its entirety, however.)

Luck as a concept runs, naturally, through each storyline here. But the penultimate episode gives us a particularly harrowing sense of how fortunate everyone employed around the track has to assume they will be, while working with animals that are both forbiddingly strong and so often skittish. During a routine examination of a horse suffering from a minor injury, Jill Hennessy’s veterenarian character, Jo, jumps back after the horse bridles at its hoof being inspected. Everyone draws a sharp breath, but no one is hurt. “That was a thing,” an assistant mutters, while Jo nods and casually starts stepping back toward the horse—as if to say, scary but no big deal. She takes one more step, and the horse rears back and deals her a solid kick to her with-child midsection. Jo collapses, and you think: yeah, this show was always something of a risk.

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Plenty of people—myself included—hadn’t even heard about the first two animal deaths on the show, coming as they did during the production of season one, many months before the first flush of P.R. blitz hit via subway ads, post-Boardwalk Empire previews and screeners sent to critics. The first episode of 'Luck' deals with a horse euthanized on the track, after suffering a bone-splitting injury mid-race—but, other than that, the injuries suffered on the show have mostly seemed survivable. The character played by Joan Allen, named Claire, represents something akin to the best hope for old racing horses—which is that they could be put out to pasture, the better to help train a few ex-cons some valuable skills in a minimum-security, theraputic fashion. In this way, 'Luck' hardly engaged the questionable ethics of horse-racing as a sport (where, indeed, some horses do perish).

Nick Nolte’s character, Walter Smith, the owner-trainer of the young Getting’up Morning, is haunted by his inability to have prevented the death of the colt’s father, Delphi. Despite reports that some in the horse-racing world were wary of Luck’s supposed dark-hearted view of the racing world, the fact remains that all the characters who handled the horses most closely, week to week, clearly loved the animals and were depicted as trying to treat them well. It was the slick-suited outsiders—like the lawyer character Bowman, who pops up in this episode, trying to get a payout or else outright ownership of Gettin’up Morning, who are revealed to be in the horse game for the wrong reasons (i.e., just money). After some calm lawyering from a man named Hartstone (never much developed outside of his role in helping Old Walter), Bowman’s claim to Getting’Up Morning seems fairly well destroyed. Chalk up another one for the people who really get horses.

Even the Degenerate Gamblers—who, in this episode, are hoping that their horse, Mon Gateau, will win during an undercard Derby-day race—are painted as noble because money is subordinate to their love of horseracing. Handicapping odds and trying to win their legitimacy around the track is communicated by the lengths they’re willing to go to understand all the horseracing gibberish the audience can barely keep up with.

Episode 8 - Preview

So: evil doesn’t much live around the tracks and stables of 'Luck'; it only comes to visit and then be chased away by one of the good souls populating the sport.

 

Where evil does live is on the yacht where Team Mike does all its collective scheming. At the beginning of the episode, Mike watches as underling DiRossi heads off to break the bad news to Dustin Hoffman’s “Ace” that young Nathan Israel has emailed his resignation as the go-between among the two camps. Then Mike heads to the back of his yacht and watches his wet-work team deep six all of Nathan’s plastic-wrapped body parts to the watery depths, anchored down by chains and metal spare parts.

Ace, naturally, knows that Israel is dead as soon as the fake-resignation email is read aloud by Gus. This recognition spurs him to hurry along the trap that he and The Greek have been setting for Team Mike in recent weeks, over at the Indian Casino. As Henchman Cohen (otherwise known as Mike’s other underling) heads to meet with the Chief about bribing officials in Sacramento to allow gambling at the track, Gus watches along with the staffers in the casino’s surveillance room. Someone hands Gus a insta-burned DVD-R of the meeting; it’s evidence which Ace could use against Team Mike down the road, if they don’t agree to back off.

Gus hands Ace the DVD right around the time they take DiRossi for a ride to the stables, under the guise of checking on Gus’s horse. In the first flash we’ve seen yet of his physicality, Gus nearly chokes Escalante while asking if there’s an empty barn they can use for “a conversation.” Escalante gets the point, and directs them to an empty shed where Gus gives DiRossi the silent treatment, once they’re locked inside. DiRossi finally intuits that he’s not there for a beating, but to be held in stasis while Ace confronts Mike on the boat over Israel’s death and the casino-surveillance evidence.

Ace’s meeting with Mike bears some narrative fruit. We see Mike react to the news of his entrapment with something like subtlety (not a strong suit of his character thus far)—even promising Ace that he’ll stay out of his way. Still, despite the calm exteriors, everyone knows that’s an act. Gus himself has additional photo evidence that Team Mike has hired “a hitter” to come after Ace. Anyone wary of watching the unintentional series finale next week should know that there is some satisfaction to be had from following these narrative threads to their unluckily short-lived ends. Same goes for Jo’s pregnancy, and jockey Rosie’s big chance riding the Four Degenerates’ horse on the undercard race.

So expect satisfaction on those counts, but not total resolution—because the latter really would be too much to ask from a show that chased danger and destruction as energetically as this one did.

Seth Colter Walls writes about "Luck" every Monday.

Previously: Luck's fortunes: Uncovering love and betrayal, through syntax.