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A Handy Guide to Understanding HBO’s Luck

There are not enough horse-racing fans in the world to sustain Luck, the new Michael Mann–David Milch show on HBO, which had a special premiere after the Boardwalk Empire finale last night (it will return for its first full season on January 29: we'll start recaps then). The rest of us need to tune in, too. But unless you spend a lot of time at Belmont or Aqueduct (and we sort of hope you don’t), Luck was a bit difficult to follow. (It is a David Milch production after all.)  We suspect you spent much of last night’s premiere saying, “Huh?” Watch it again and consult our Vulture guide to the questions you probably asked about Luck, in chronological order.

Why can’t Ace (Dustin Hoffman) own a horse?
Ace’s driver, Gus, picks him up outside of California Institution for Men in Chino. Under California law (the series is set at the Santa Anita racetrack, near Los Angeles), the state Horse Racing Board may "may refuse to issue a license or deny a license to any person … who has been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment in a California state prison or a federal prison."

Why does everyone care so much about the horse’s bowels?
Horses are big, but their intestines are not. When food gets stuck along the many twists and turns of the digestive tract, the horse’s bowel gets impacted. Could you run a race that way? There are several remedies, like Milk of Magnesia, to help the horse along. If that doesn’t work, the lady from Crossing Jordan has to pretend stick her hand up the horse’s ass and clear the poor guy out.

Why is the trainer Escalante (John Ortiz) such a dick to jockey Leon Micheaux (Tom Payne)?
In addition to making horses run faster, trainers also determine a horse’s strategy. Does the horse start slow and then explode along the final stretch? Is it lousy at weaving around other horses? The trainer tells the jockey how to run the horse, but the jockey should keep that information to himself. Plus, Leon is a “bug boy,” or an apprentice jockey. He should just be quiet.

Why is that nice, pretty lady (Kerry Condon) riding horses for scary Nick Nolte?
Rosie is an exercise rider. They run the horses early in the morning for practice. The trainer watches the run and times it with a stopwatch to determine how fast the horse is moving

Okay, but why does Escalante bitch Leon out to Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind)?
Rathburn (known to meanies around the track as “Porky Pig”) is Leon’s agent. Agents pair jockeys with horses. “There is perhaps no other job in the business of sports that demands such a diverse and eclectic set of skills,” Joe Drape wrote in the Times. "[An agent] must be a sharp handicapper and salesman, a methodical thinker. He also is a full-time travel agent, a part-time shrink and a sometime whipping boy.”

What’s a “Pick Six”?
There are lots and lots of ways to bet on horses. The riskier the bet, the higher the payout. To win a Pick Six, the gambler must pick the winners in six consecutive races.

But if there’s only one winner, why does Jerry (Jason Gedrick) pick so many horses?
Jerry spreads the risk by betting on several possible winners in multiple races. But it costs more, too. Let’s say it costs $2 to place a bet in one race. If you’re betting on six different horses, that’s a $12 bet. In the case of our railbirds, the total cost of the Pick Six bet was $864. (Jerry is very good at this, which is why he sold his picks to that scuzzy security guard.)

That sounds impossible.
Not quite, but almost. That’s why the Pick Six jackpot can get so big. If no one wins today, the pool carries over into tomorrow and the next day.

Why does Kagle the security guard boot those nice degenerate gamblers?
The railbirds, the real hard-core track guys, come in early to see the horses exercise. (Really early — they usually start before 6 a.m.) This research is part of “handicapping," which is how a gambler considers betting the race. (Lots of elements go into handicapping a race, including prior performance, the horse’s lineage, its trainer, etc.) The track is often closed to the public for a couple of hours between training runs and when the first race begins.

Why does Leon get weighed holding a saddle?
There are strict limits about how much weight a horse can carry and a jockey is weighed with his equipment (saddle and stirrups) to determine if he or she fits in that limit. Jockeys, like wrestlers, have to “make weight." They do this in a number of unpleasant ways, including sweating and purging.

Are trainers allowed to bet on their horses?
For sure! And Escalante just won a ton. Perhaps he knew something we did not. (The horse paid $26.40; Escalante placed two bets, one for $1,000 and one for $2,000.) Jockeys are not allowed to bet on races they are riding.

Why is Kagle so curious about the railbirds’ tax situation?
If you win more than $5,000 at the track in one race, the IRS is going to hear about it. And then anything else you may owe the IRS will be garnished from your winnings. What Kagle is offering the railbirds is a “beard” to collect their winnings for them. In this case, the beard is someone with a clean tax record who can claim the winnings, pay the appropriate taxes, and then give the money back to the railbirds — for a small fee, of course.

Why does the track official want to publicize the winner of the Pick Six?
Have you ever been to the track? What about any of your friends? Your extended family? Horse racing is a sport in big, big financial trouble. Racing authorities want to attract more gamblers, and what better way to do that than have the lucky winner (who, the authority prays, is a clean-looking, clear-eyed person with a full set of choppers) look happy behind an oversize check? It could happen to you!

Did they have to do that to that nice horse?
Yes.

Photo: HBO