Understanding Luck: Episode 8
By Jessica Chapel, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

There are no shortage of places that do narrative recaps of HBO’s Luck, but that may or may not help you understand the “inside baseball” that’s going on with regard to horse racing. So, starting with the series premiere on January 29, we’re publishing a guide to help you better understand what’s going on and/or learn more about horse racing.

Understanding Luck Archive

Warning: Spoilers!

The first season — now, the only season — of “Luck” has been slowly building to a conclusion, each episode adding details and shading to the characters we’ve met at the track. With this week’s episode, we finally get a sense of what the series climax will be when the final episode airs next week — the $1 million Western Derby in which Gettin’up Morning and Pint of Plain will meet.

“Jog him back past the 7/8, break him off at the 3/8 …”
It’s training hours at Santa Anita, and Gettin’up Morning is headed to the track for a work with Ronnie Jenkins (Gary Stevens) aboard. Based on the instructions trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) gives the rider — “break him off at the 3/8 [pole] — it sounds like a three-furlong workout. Coming just a few days before the Western Derby, it’s likely Smith intends the work as a blowout, a pre-race training move used to hone a horse’s fitness and speed.

Blowouts can be done three to four days before a race, the day before, or even the morning of, as 2011 Juvenile champion Hansen did hours before the 2012 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct earlier this month. In 2009, trainer Gary Stute sent out Papa Clem to work three furlongs in :34 two days before the Kentucky Derby. “I wanted to let him roll,” said Stute, a sentiment Smith would surely appreciate, seeing as how he’d like Getting’up Morning to “strut” down the stretch.

Find out more
You Better Work

“Old man lucked into the best horse of his life.”
That’s what one clocker says to another as Smith passes by their seats on his way to watch Gettin’up Morning work. Horse racing is made up of trainers who wait their whole careers for a big horse, the kind of horse that can win Grade 1 stakes races, and possibly, even a championship. In 2011, Scooter Dickey got his shot with a horse named Flat Out, winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and a favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. For three years starting in 2008, Tom McCarthy, a retired school teacher as well as a trainer, campaigned General Quarters, a horse he bought for $20,000 and took to the 2009 Kentucky Derby. General Quarters won only four times in his career, but two of those wins were at the game’s highest level, and he earned more than $1.2 million.

One of the greatest fillies of all time, Rachel Alexandra, began her career in 2008 with Kentucky trainer Hal Wiggins. Before Rachel Alexandra, named 2009 Horse of the Year after a brilliant campaign that included wins in the Kentucky Oaks, Preakness Stakes, and Woodward Stakes, Wiggin’s best horses were a filly named Morris Code, winner of more than $700,000, and a stakes winner named Chorwon.

Unfortunately for Wiggins, he was not the trainer of record when Rachel Alexandra was honored at the 2009 Eclipse Awards for her accomplishments. After the filly won the Kentucky Oaks, she was sold by owner Dolphus Morrison to Jess Jackson and Hal McCormick; Jackson turned Rachel Alexandra over to trainer Steve Asmussen immediately. By all accounts, the transfer was amicable, although Wiggins did admit “mixed emotions” on the occasion.

If Smith were to lose Gettin’up Morning, his emotions surely would be more volatile.

Find out more
In Flat Out, Dickey finally has his big horse
With Smallest of Stables, Trainer Tom McCarthy Reaches Biggest Race
Wiggins Reacts to Losing Rachel

“Protest is found without standing … Walter Smith is the owner/trainer.”
The man who appeared in Smith’s shedrow two episodes back claiming ownership of Smith’s big horse appears again this week. Dennis Bowman presses his case in a meeting before the stewards, but the officials rule for Smith. That doesn’t stop Bowman from persisting with his demands; he unwisely confronts Smith after Getting’up Morning schools in the Santa Anita saddling enclosure. As the scene makes clear, the trainer is still tormented by what happened the night his horse’s sire, Delphi, died on a financially troubled Kentucky farm. The controversy that followed the death of stakes winner and leading sire Alydar in 1990 inspired the story of Delphi.

Find out more
Reading List: Wild Ride

“I guess they don’t give nothing away.”
Post positions for the Western Derby are drawn, and Gettin’up Morning lands in post position #1. The inside, again, prompting Smith to grumble, “I guess they don’t give nothing away.” As in his first race, Gettin’up Morning will have to overcome a “difficult rail.” Pint of Plain draws marginally better, getting post position #2. But Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) doesn’t look much happier than Smith.

The Western Derby, a fictitious stakes, is likely based on the Santa Anita Derby, an important Kentucky Derby prep race run in early April. This year, the Santa Anita Derby is scheduled for April 7 and has a purse of $750,000, enough graded stakes earnings to guarantee the winner a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Find out more
Understanding Luck: Episode 3

“Horse got 112. Kid’s five pounds over.”
Rosie (Kerry Condon) gets a break, at the expense of Leon (Tom Payne), when Escalante names her to ride Mon Gateau in an overnight stakes race on the Western Derby undercard. Leon has been struggling with his weight for weeks, and 117.6, he’s bumping up against the limit for any jockey, let alone an apprentice with a five-pound allowance.

An overnight stakes race is one in which entries are taken a week or less before the race and usually does not require nominations or starting fees. This race, apparently for $75,000, seems to include weight assignments based on past performances or age — jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) remarks to Escalante that the racing secretary doesn’t think much of his horse, considering that he assigned Mon Gateau 112 pounds. Whatever the conditions, it’s a significant step up in class for Mon Gateau, who started the season running in a $10,000 claiming race.

Find out more
Overview of Conditions

“I nursed my horse on the lead, put ’em to sleep behind me.”
Jenkins gets a win by employing a classic bit of riding strategy — he lets his horse go to the front and run slow fractions through the first part of the race. (According to the track flack, Jenkins did the same thing to win the 1992 Kentucky Derby.) Emmet’s Daddy was probably the lone speed in the race; the pace was his to set. As the field turns into the stretch, it looks as though Jenkins’ horse might be done — those watching seem to think Emmet’s Daddy is about to start moving backwards — but the horse comes back with speed enough to win by open lengths.

In the 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Funny Cide pulled a similar move (although he was running on the pace, not setting it), fading on the stretch turn, then giving fans a thrill when he won with a late kick. More recently, Odysseus made himself a leading Kentucky Derby prospect by winning the 2010 Tampa Bay Derby the same way.

Find out more
Introduction to Pace
Replay of Funny Cide’s Jockey Club Gold Cup
Replay of Odysseus’ Tampa Bay Derby


  • who is Emmet’s Daddy? Was that just a different horse Ronnie Jenkins was on for the day?

  • One could say that in the 1988 Kentucky Derby Winning Color’s jockey nursed his horse’s speed on the lead, put em to sleep and then held on for the win, although she never lost the lead. Winning Color’s Jockey that day? Hmmm . . . some guy named Stevens, what ever happened to him? :-)

  • Patrick – I believe so.

    Dante – good one! Winning Colors in the Santa Anita Derby (her final prep for the Kentucky Derby) is one my all-time favorite races. Here’s the replay.

    I added a link to our recently published Introduction to Pace that goes into detail about running styles.

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