Aiming High: An Occasional Horseplayer Considers “Luck”

Dan Packel spent many childhood days at the racetrack, never quite grasping the sport. For similar reasons, audiences never connected with HBO’s ill-fated series Luck.


I would go to Philadelphia Park on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon ostensibly because my grandfather’s horse, a cheap claimer named Aiming High, was running that day. We would sit in the restaurant, with its sloping tiers of tables looking out over the racetrack, in a spot with an optimal view of the finish line. I was 13, 14 years old and thrilled to spend the day with my grandfather, an open and generous man who was more at ease in the world than either of my parents.

I don’t recall if I properly understood the concept of the claiming horse at the time. In this way, I probably had a lot in common with many people watching the HBO dramaLuck, which was recently cancelled after a third horse died on the set – adding injury to the insult of low ratings. The program both filmed and set at California’s Santa Anita Park, offers a look into a world much like the one in which I spent a decent portion of my youth. Some of the roughly 1 .1 million viewers who tuned in for the series premiere (a meager number compared to the opening episode of other recent HBO efforts like Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones) probably did so because of sentimental or active interest in the fading sport of horse racing. But low ratings — in recent weeks, viewership had declined by nearly 50% — suggest that the show had trouble hanging on to casual viewers For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if this group was puzzled by a segment in the second episode in which trainer/owner Turo Escalante loses a promising horse by entering him into a claiming race. Because of my years of active track attendance, and because of those afternoons at Philadelphia Park, I understood. It’s something like this:

Racing incorporates many levels, and for every horse that gets entered into nationally televised, headline-capturing events like the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup, hundreds run in obscurity on Wednesday afternoons at lesser tracks around the country. In that world, the first few races on the card are generally categorized as “claiming” races to differentiate them from the “allowance” races that are a step up the ladder. To purchase a horse in a given “claiming” race only takes a little paperwork prior to the race and a fee: generally between $5,000 and $25,000, depending on the track and the race. Any yutz out there can do it. Meanwhile, by entering his horse into a claiming race to chase, say, a $5,000 purse, the owner (like Escalante) faces the risk that said yutz can take ownership as soon as the horses cross the finish line.

This is exactly how my grandfather, Joe, with his partners in the D.A.R.M.S Stable (an ad hoc amalgamation of the partners’ last initials) acquired Aiming High. After deciding they wanted to enter the world of horse ownership, they lined up a trainer to advise them on which horse to target for their claim and to take possession of their new property once the transfer was complete.

Meeting with the trainer was an important part of our race days at the track. Early on race day, this stocky fellow in jeans and a plaid shirt would stop by our spot in the restaurant. He’d shake my hand, and then chat with Grandpop Joe, probably about Aiming High’s prospects in the race, and whether Joe should be laying money on him in addition to hoping for the purse. I, for my part, was engrossed in my cheeseburger and coke.

Despite the fact that the live races only went off every 25 minutes, there were plenty of distractions. I was, at that age, especially intrigued by the esoteric fine print inside my racing program — symbols and codes and weird gambling runes that tracked the past performances of the horses in a given race. Serious players break down this sea of information to find an angle, and I try my best to do so nowadays — although at the time I was more reliant on the selections of the handicapper for The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose chart Grandpop Joe would invariably have torn out of the paper for me before leaving. He, like the horseplayers in Luck, had little need for the crib sheet himself. With years of experience handicapping, outside help was extraneous. Maybe even insulting.

We’d check in with Aiming High’s trainer when we made our way down to the paddock before the race. Here, I would be offered the opportunity to pet the horse’s shiny coat, which stretched taut over his muscular build. The groom would saddle the horse, and when the jockey took him out for the post parade, we would head up a level to watch the race. Not all the way up to the dining room, though — we wanted to be in position to hop down to the winner’s circle, if circumstances dictated. Aiming High won some races in the year and a half before he got claimed away, but never when I was in attendance.

Still, this was just one race out of the seven or eight we would watch on a given outing. When I first started tagging along, Joe would give me $20 with which to bet over the course of the day — on paper. Since I was a minor, I had to rely on him to place my bets at the window; I would collect the balance, including my initial subsidy, upon leaving. On the way home, Joe always had the same message, alluding to the secret world of the track. “Don’t tell whether you won or lost,” he told me. He was immediately referring to my mother, but the point was also more general. “Always say that you broke even.”

I can’t help but think about Joe when watching Luck. On those Saturdays and Sundays at Philadelphia Park, and in part from Grandop Joe, I caught the racing bug. Gambling was part of it.

The incomparable sensation of holding onto a live ticket when the horses come around the final turn — Luck gets this right. Stoic driver Gus (Dennis Farina) — dragged to the track by Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein, a convicted felon who’s legally prohibited from owning a horse — breaks into an impish smile as he stands and shouts, “C’mon, horse.” It’s the first ticket he’s ever played. “Ace, I had $200 on this race,” he exclaims when his horse crosses the finish line first. “Don’t ever knock this fucking country to me.”

It’s this prospect of turning nothing into something (or, in Gus’s case, something into something notably more) that’s seductive. It’s also part of why I was eager to continue going to the track with my grandfather even after Aiming High was claimed away from Joe’s partnership in a reversal of how he was acquired, and later on my own once I came of age to place my own bets.

But I loved spending the day with Joe, too. Once we got to the track, it seemed like he knew everyone at the place: the valet, the fellow selling programs at the door, the maitre’d at the restaurant. We would often march into the track office on the second floor, where I’d shake some hands and stand by while he made conversation with the management. And the authority with which Ace Bernstein strides about his world reminds me of how my grandfather rolled: impatient, direct, and wielding a blue tongue I didn’t encounter anywhere other than R-rated movies.

Like me, Luck creator David Milch fell under the spell of racing due to a family member, and is still part of the diminishing tribe that still gathers at American racetracks. Milch told Fresh Air’s Dave Davies that as a child, his father would occasionally take him across New York from their hometown of Buffalo to attend the races at Saratoga, one of the few tracks that still draws a glamorous crowd, well-dressed and eager to be seen. Still, even at Saratoga, the specter of turpitude lingered. “The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler,” Milch told Davies. “But it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet… On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me, and, therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off.”

Unsurprisingly, the degenerates earn their share of screen time in Luck. In the pilot, a band of sad-sacks who circle from the diner to the track to their scuzzy motel beat the odds in spectacular fashion, turning an $800-plus pooled bet into a $2.6 million haul. These aren’t the kind of guys whom I saw in the dining room of Philadelphia Park when I was 13; but they’re the ones that I see in the bowels of the track now when I go to place my wagers — eyes on the monitors showing simulcasts from around the country, a chance to get some action every five minutes instead of every 25.

With the camera trading between views of grandstand at Santa Anita and the artificially lit interior underneath, Milch’s screenplay hints at the decline in racing between my Joe’s time and mine. Scattered pockets of fans sit amidst a sea of empty seats in a grand facility built for 26,000 — not including standing room. There’s no illusions that this remains the “sport of kings.” Even the horseracing inside baseball here is a function of the present. The group is working the Pick-6, a tricky bet that involves selecting the winners of six races in a row — an “exotic” bet, in racing parlance, that didn’t exist three decades ago, when Milch’s father and my grandfather were at the track. When betting, players will generally select multiple horses in each race to increase their odds. But the handicapping Jerry ensures the syndicate’s triumph by “singling”— opting to rely on one horse alone in one of the races — the horse trained by Escalante that’s claimed in the following episode. This bold (and unexplained) reliance on a longshot succeeds in winnowing down the potential competitors for the $2-million-and-change pot.

Befitting the code of secrecy that I’d learned about much earlier (and informed here, in part, by the tax ramifications), the members of the syndicate have no interest in coming forward to collect on their ticket while the local TV news cameras roll in hopes of capturing a moment of triumph for the struggling track and industry.

There’s a false note, however, when the group huddles in front of the monitors in the underbelly of Santa Anita’s grandstand, watching the final race. Having selected all the horses entered in the race, they’re guaranteed a payoff. But again they anxiously urge on another longshot, who marks the difference between a $600,000 payout and the full pot.

The sweep of the cameras thrillingly captures the horses roaring down the backstretch, the view from the pack, the simmering excitement of the regulars scattered in the grandstand. Then, with the longshot crossing the finish line and the camera trained on our degenerates, the soundtrack kicks in: the song is a selection from the Icelandic outfit Sigur Ros’ second album. I happen to like this particular song, but in the context of the racetrack, it was jarring. This was pastoral music I associated with slow-motion visuals of flowing glaciers or wintery afternoons — far removed from the shuffle and rush of the track. I couldn’t drop the striking sense that these Scandinavians burbling in their invented-language do not belong in the place where I sat at the table with my grandfather while I settled uneasily into adolescence?

The track is home to drama and dissolution: that’s what keeps Ace, the degenerates, my Grandpa Joe, and me coming back. This last Saturday at a chilly Aqueduct in Queens, I sat in the grandstand with a friend, brow furrowed over my program, where the soundtrack was roots reggae drifting over from some stereo-toting Jamaicans to our right. I’m not there to pursue symbolic goals or grasp at a lost childhood, but I’m hard pressed to picture a better place to spend a random weekend afternoon. Like the idealized corner bar that, in other fictions, serves as an alternate home. And that was it, I think, the sting I felt at that moment when Sigur Ros came on the soundtrack — a song I know, a place I know, but a jarring juxtaposition. I knew it would take another day out, one bugle call summoning the horses to the post, to chase it out of my head.

Dan Packel is a writer based in Philadelphia. His writing has been published in The New York Times, Gastronomica, Afar, and elsewhere.