It doesn't matter who you are—you will crumble when a horse nuzzles you. You can be a stone-faced, all-business gangster like Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and that facade will turn to rubble when a horse rubs its face against yours. Luck's large cast of characters spans the entire socioeconomic spectrum, but every last one of them has a deep, abiding love for horses within them. They're the equine equalizers, reducing everybody to the same childlike level.
"That is some wonderful horse."
Ace's tender moment with Pint of Plain at the end of last night's episode was absolutely crucial. In every other aspect, Ace is losing his luster as a character; sure, it's interesting to see how Ace plans on screwing over his former partners, and if he really is the smartest guy in the room. And Hoffman's understated performance is fantastic, especially how every conversation feels like an elaborate game of oratorical chicken. It's tough to care about Ace as a person, though, even with the introduction of Claire Lechea (Joan Allen) as a potential love interest.
Ace is too perfect. He controls every situation and owns every room he walks into. That infallibility and unflappability can be intriguing, especially if his long con against Mike (Michael Gambon), DiRossi (Alan Rosenberg) and Cohen (Ted Levine) doesn't go as planned. Right now, however, it dampers whatever drama the character could generate. He's like the Superman of organized crime, with no apparent weaknesses for us to hang our fears on.
Ace's relationship with his horse, Pint of Plain, humanizes him. A horse's emotional effectiveness isn't as immediately apparent as it is when Renzo (Ritchie Coster) goes all slack-jawed at the very thought of Mon Gateau, but even Ace is overcome by the majesty and mystery of Pint of Plain. He's understandably angry when he learns that his trainer, Escalante (John Ortiz), entered Plain in a race without notice, and with rookie jockey Leon Micheaux (Tom Payne) listed to ride. Although it initially seems like Ace is just protecting a multimillion dollar investment, it quickly becomes obvious that he's concerned about the horse, too.
"Find out whether you're a gambler or a trainer."
Escalante claims that he only entered Plain as a favor to the racing office, which needed at least five horses for a race, and that there was a 90% chance Plain would've been scratched. Escalante says Leon was listed as the jockey because, as a rookie, he wouldn't risk speaking out about this very minor scam. Ace calls Escalante out, saying that he was obviously trying to win big with a bet on Plain by slipping him into a nothing race against a field of vastly inferior horses and with an untested jockey on his back. Ace decides that Plain will run after all, but with a more experienced jockey, and orders Escalante to draw up a list of the five best riders and to give Micheaux a $5,000 payoff for bumping him from the race.
Escalante hasn't been developed much past the first episode. He's still a scheming, temperamental asshole who acts like he's smarter than everybody else. He's easily the least likable character on the show, so it's nice to see Ace make him realize his insignificance.
Once again, the race that serves as the episode's dramatic highpoint is difficult to watch. With every single close-up comes the dread of seeing a shot of a horse's leg snapping. Those fears were unfounded last week, but something goes wrong in last night's race. A horseshoe flies off one of the other horses, slicing Pint of Plain's leg, exposing bone and covering the horse with blood. Pint of Plain doesn't even seem to feel it, though. He shrugs off the pain, charges hard and wins by several lengths. He's a born champ.
Jo (Jill Hennessy), Escalante's veterinarian and lover, says Pint of Plain should be okay despite the injury. Ace, worried about his investment but also worried about this magnificent creature, sleeps in the stable alongside his horse. Instead of ending with the customary late-night chat between Ace and Gus "The Greek" Demetriou (Dennis Farina), the episode ends with Pint of Plain nuzzling up against the aging gangster, whose face lights up with childlike wonder. Everybody is reduced to good, caring, emotionally transparent people when they're with their horse.
"My problem is, I'm about to die."
"Episode Five" was, overall, a very emotional episode, despite the total lack of Walter Smith (Nick Nolte). And as usual the four gamblers who won the pick six jackpot are the most sympathetic characters.
The crippled Marcus (Kevin Dunn) has a huge fight with Jerry (Jason Gedrick). Even though Marcus is constantly a gruff jerk to everybody, it's obvious he cares for Jerry and wants to help him get over his gambling addiction. Jerry cuts the argument off to go play poker, leaving Renzo and Lonnie (Ian Hart) to take an irate Marcus to the doctor. At the hospital,the doctor says Marcus isn't as bad off as he thinks and should still be around in five years despite his heart disease. The doctor prescribes valium and tells Marcus he should relieve his stress by talking to somebody. Marcus says he talks to his horse.
Later on, Jerry returns to the hotel and finds a weepy, drugged-up Marcus. Marcus's hard front completely breaks down, and he tells Jerry he thinks he must be "queer" for him because he worries about Jerry all the time. He mentions how happy he was watching Gettin' Up Morning's transcendent win (from the previous episode), and how that happiness immediately ended because his next thought was about Jerry and his poker addiction. Jerry turns that thought around on Marcus, saying that he left to go gamble at the Hustler Casino but stopped and came back because he was worried about Marcus' visit to the doctor.
Part of Luck's charm is the focus on the ersatz families formed by horse racing, from the owners to the trainers to the jockeys, and despite their inherent degeneracy the foursome of Jerry, Marcus, Renzo and Lonnie is Luck's most touching family.
“I’ll be goddamned if I can understand why you’ve got to be so goddamned hateful, Ronnie.”
The same can't be said for jockey agent Joey Rathburn's (Richard Kind) brood, because, well, he doesn't have any family at all. His two clients, Leon and Ronnie (Gary Stevens), are both pissed at him—Leon because he lost the race on Pint of Plain, and Ronnie because he's a miserable bastard taking his own self-loathing out on his nearest friend. We learn that Joey also apparently has an ex-wife and a child, based on the multiple pathetic voicemails Joey leaves about taking "the squirt" out to dinner.
After one final, particularly depressing voicemail, Joey loses it at a bar, drunkenly ranting about his horrible life to nobody in particular. Joey's primed to crack, and Kind makes it both hard to watch but impossible to look away from. The same is true of Luck itself, from the imminent threat of horse death found in every race to the cast of tough-luck losers and shady operators.