Characters often make their own luck, pun intended, in HBO's new horseracing drama Luck. Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) fixed the slot machine that gave Gus "the Greek" Demetriou (Dennis Farina) enough money to buy the thoroughbred Pint of Plain. Escalante (John Ortiz) tried hard to make Mon Gateau look injured so he could win a bet and slip the horse through a claiming race. Jerry (Jason Gedrick) saw through Escalante's ploy and used it as the key to his multimillion dollar Pick Six jackpot. Everybody has a system or a con and luck rarely factors in as you'd expect.
“Brains and ambition, and he thinks that’s supposed to get him somewhere."
Ace is running the biggest con of them all, using a variety of criminal associates in a plan to get back at his former partner Mike (the still unseen Michael Gambon). Last week’s parole meeting showed how “people make adjustments” for Ace. Now Ace has his parole meetings at his own building while working out in the gym. Next week he'll just G-chat with his officer. Ace gets his way.
Later on Ace cuts straight to business when he addresses the board of his company, avoiding any pleasantries. The meeting would consist solely of Ace issuing orders if it wasn't for a junior employee who shocks the room by questioning one of Ace's edicts. Ace commands the company to buy into the holding company that runs Santa Anita, purchasing one share above the five percent that mandates a filing with the SEC. Nathan Israel (Patrick J. Adams), an ambitious young suit who's a wiz with "muni derivatives," calls Ace on obviously wanting to attract attention to this deal. Ace storms out without a word, and later asks the head of the board to send Israel up to his suite.
Last week, Ace and the Greek talked about finding a go-between for their vengeance-minded deal with Mike, Ace's former partner whose drug habit led to Ace's prison stint. It's clear that Ace thinks Israel might be his man. During an incredibly tense meeting, Ace's attitude towards Israel goes from total disinterest to active derision—Ace tears the kid down in front of Gus. He then tells Israel to go home and write down every single thing he does the rest of the day. If Ace likes what he reads the next day he’ll give Israel a million dollars to work for him the next year. After Israel leaves Ace makes it clear that he's their go-between, because he's "the type of kid that’ll irritate the shit out of Mike."
Luck's third episode spend a bit too much time on this one plot point, and it's unclear if Ace sees anything of note within Israel or simply wants to screw over an obnoxious young jerk while also twisting the knife in Mike as much as possible. Hoffman, per usual exudes quiet authority in every scene, an intensity that's in stark contrast to the sorts of roles he's best known for. Ace has only truly lost his temper once so far, but the constant threat keeps everyone around him in line.
“I break this fucking collarbone more than I get laid.”
"Episode Three" also reinforces the perils of being a jockey. We don't see Rosie (Kerry Condon) this week, but tragedy falls upon both Ronnie Jenkins (Gary Stevens) and Leon "Bug" Micheaux (Tom Payne). Bug is trying to steam off some weight at the last second, but, in the process, he passes out and cracks his skull on the hard sauna floor. He's not too banged up, but the doctor wants to keep him off the track for a few days. Bug and his agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) convince the doctor to clear him for duty.
Meanwhile, in the episode’s centerpiece race, Ronnie takes a nasty spill off Gettin’ Up Morning, the promising horse owned by Walter Smith (Nick Nolte). Both Ronnie and Walter were worried that this would happen, as Morning pulled the first position in the poll, right next to the rail. But then Ronnie breaks his collarbone, getting sidelined for four to six weeks.
With Ronnie down, Walter realizes he has to turn to Rosie after talking her into going to Portland to gain more on-the-track experience. She has history with Getting’ Up Morning, but Walter's afraid he might derail her development by recalling her so quickly. Walter nervously rehearses his call to Rosie like a middle-schooler about to call a girl for the first time. His interest in Rosie seems to transcend their professional relationship, verging on a weird mix between the paternal and romantic.
As Walter worries over calling Rosie, a broken Ronnie snorts lines in his car and buys a pint of Cutty. Apparently a coked-up, alcoholic jockey with a busted collarbone can be a bit of a racist dick, based on how Ronnie treats the liquor store cashier.
“Guy asks me about a girl I used to see, maybe I still got eyes for her? I tell him she’s got crabs.”
So far the best part of Luck (beyond the acting) has been the storyline about the four degenerates who won a massive jackpot in the first episode. When we last saw them, Jerry, Marcus (Kevin Dunn) and Renzo (Ritchie Coster) were trying to get Lonnie (Ian Hart) to the hospital after two women nearly murdered him. Lonnie's fine except for his broken skull, and with his discharge the four gamblers can focus on buying the horse that won them their fortune.
The interactions between these four lovable losers and the veteran character actors who play them are entertaining, but this episode's step-by-step focus on how they buy their horse was a bit dry and boring. It did give us a better look at Jerry's charming side, though.
Renzo, who remains a total sweetheart, wants to name their stable the Four Amigos. The belligerent Marcus wants to simplify it to the Four A's because then it could also stand for Assholes. Of course, they first need a horse, after losing the claim on Escalante's horse Mon Gateau to a cowboy trainer named Buck Mulligan (W. Earl Brown). Jerry is tasked with striking a deal with Mulligan and also hiring Escalante as trainer.
Jerry pays Escalante for an honest health report on Mon Gateau, but Escalante is still trying to play everybody, telling Jerry that the horse can’t race anymore. Jerry sees through his bullshit, and sets up a deal where Escalanate will be their trainer. He then strikes a deal with Mulligan: $25,000 for the horse and a $7,500 payoff to Mulligan. Jerry even pledges 5% of Mon Gateau's future purses to Renzo's trainer friend Goose (Jeffrey Woody Copland) as a make-good for not hiring him as trainer.
It's good to see these four in good spirits after Lonnie's beatdown and Jerry's self-destructive poker sprees. Even the horribly grumpy Marcus is in an unusually good mood in "Episode Three." He and Renzo agree that horse ownership might be a good influence on Jerry, as he’s been avoiding the poker tables; Lonnie, on the other hand, thinks his beating might have been a wake-up call for Jerry.
Lest the hour end on a happy note, though, Jerry returns to the poker tables, buying in large and butting heads with his card shark nemesis Lester (Dennis Dun). It'd be a shock if Jerry's luck doesn't eventually run out, for good.
Another Oscar nominee joins the cast, with Joan Allen making her first appearance as a representative of a thoroughbred rescue organization.
Apparently Escalante’s relationship with veterinarian Jo (Jill Hennessey) had been strained for a few days because he thought she tipped Mulligan off about Mon Gateau in the claiming race.
The first thing Renzo wants to do after dropping thousands of dollars on a race horse is to pet it. There's no way he lives through the season.
Hopefully, every episode ends with Ace and Gus chatting it up while falling asleep in the penthouse. Despite a few references to his violent side, Gus remains Luck's most likable character, after Renzo.