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reality check

How Accurate Is Luck About Life at the Track?

When HBO's horse-racing drama Luck first premiered, we put together this handy guide to understanding the series, a necessary companion piece seeing as the show's dialogue is not only very dense, it's all about horse racing — and most of us lay people could wad up and put under our eyelid all we knew about horse racing and not feel a thing. But now that the show has been on for a few weeks, we thought it was high time for another service-oriented piece about Luck: How accurate is it about gambling, gamblers, and horses? To gauge the show's verisimilitude, Vulture sought out a man who, fittingly, knows more than a little something about show business and the track: Broadway big shot Jerry Zaks. While best known as the Tony-winning director of shows like Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves, Lend Me a Tenor, and Guys and Dolls, Zaks is also an inveterate gambler at the track and off, betting most days of the workweek. “I bet very conservatively,” he says, never more than $25 to $40, “I love handicapping. I bet Aqueduct and Belmont as often as I can, if work doesn’t interfere — three four times a week. I love to get the Racing Form the night before,” pausing to caution, “I don’t purport to be good at this. It’s just something I’ve done since I was a cast member in Grease.” (Zaks was in the original Broadway production back in 1971.) We spoke with Zaks, who watches the show, about the series' truthiness.

THE HORSES
“Initially, I thought they were being ignored a bit as characters. I’ve never been more than a casual, for-recreation horseplayer, but being in the presence of a great horse, like Seattle Slew, is awe-inspiring. The shots of the horses made them look as beautiful as they are. Even a cheap ‘claimer,’ to the untrained eye, can look just beautiful. It’s a fascinating thing when you watch a race where a horse is outclassed. Sometimes an ambitious trainer will put a horse in a race where the horse does not belong. The horse will break out in a nervous sweat — it knows it does not belong there. I think they’re like actors, in a way: There are some actors who are capable of being on a Broadway stage, and there are others who just aspire to it. What qualifies one over the other, it’s not one thing. What happens when the gate opens? When the bell rings? When the curtain goes up? Based on the first episode, I am waiting for more of that. But by the third episode, [the horses] are getting more face time. There’s that scene, where those four degenerates, the railbirds, are introduced to their horse for the first time. The one guy says, ‘Can I pet him?’ and the reaction shots of the horse are so effective. Like a good actor, he forces you to imagine what’s going through his head.”

VERISIMILITUDE RATING:
Four horeshoes out of five.

THE JOCKEYS
“The way that horses were worked out, the way jockeys competed for mounts, [the jockey agent] Richard Kind, were very well observed, always angling to get his jockey on the best mount possible. But there weren’t enough riders who are of Spanish descent. You go to the track today, and probably seven out of ten riders are of Spanish background. They’re also incredibly strong; the strength in their arms and legs needed to push and pull a 2,000-pound animal? They’re silent [when racing], but they’re often actually yelling at each other, cursing at each other, trying to psych each other out. The show presumes we know that it’s done.”

VERISIMILITUDE RATING:
Three horseshoes out of five.

THE TRAINERS
“It’s like Broadway a little: If the horse is the star, then the trainer is the director, and the owner is the producer. It’s the trainer who’s with the actors all day long. I remember a piece that Red Smith wrote about a trainer and his horse. This trainer knew his horse so well, he knew the horse wouldn't run unless he opened up a flap that covered a hole that let the horse see into the next stall. That horse wouldn’t really 'run' until he opened up the hole, and the horse could see his friend in the other stall. And once he figured that out, what happened to the first horse in terms of his performance was amazing. He starts winning way beyond his usual class. But then the horse was claimed by a different owner, who used a different trainer. And therefore the horse was separated from his trainer, and it went way downhill in performance. That saying the Irish have, ‘Money will buy a fine dog, but only love will make him wag his tail’? You bet your ass they’re right about that. When you see the trainer Walter (Nick Nolte) talking to the jockey Ronnie (Gary Stevens) you get a little sense of that — the depth of Nolte’s reaction to things. It had the smell of truth. Even trainer Escalante (John Ortiz), who’s a schemer, when he sees a loose horse on the track — and a loose horse is very dangerous, because it has no rider to tell it where to go — when he sees a loose horse on the track, he leaps to his feet and runs onto the track. Not that there’s anything he can do, but he reacts like a parent who sees their toddler in danger. It’s not stretching it to say that trainers — good ones — are like parents to their horses.”
VERSIMILITUDE RATING: Four and a half horseshoes out of five.­­

THE BETTORS
"The betting on this show is like a grace note, an ornamental
flourish not necessary to carry the overall line of the melody. I know something that rings wonderfully, deliciously true is the guy in the wheelchair, Marcus (Kevin Dunn). His whole purpose is to bet — he and his friend are great at handicapping races. That said, I’ve yet to hear someone in three episodes of Luck with real handicapping skill. Also, you know, there’s a bit of class warfare that occurs at the track. True gamblers look down at the casual gamblers, the ones who say, ‘I like this horse because I like his name.’ When someone who’s a true gambler wins, they express it as a quiet little satisfaction — maybe a slight fist-pump or something, but then they move on. There isn’t the wild celebration that occurs when someone wins a huge Pick Six and pockets $100,000 that’s going to change their life. The ones who make money at the track have discipline. They know when to say, ‘I’m passing this race,’ because, for all the research you do, they’re just horses: On any given day, one could beat another. Betting is minimizing your loses as much as it is maximizing your winnings. I’d like to see more of that.”
VERISIMILITUDE RATING:
Three and a half horseshoes out of five.

Photo: null/HBO