Gusmano Cesaretti
Jeff Labrecque
January 30, 2012 AT 08:09 AM EST

Thoroughbred racing likes to call itself the Sport of Kings. And for many casual fans who tune in to watch the ponies on television two or three times a year, the track might still seem like a glamorous place, a showcase of beautiful women in ostentatious hats, gardens of gorgeous flowers, and the sheer athletic magnificence of powerful animals bred solely to run a mile and a half (or so) as fast as possible. But not every day is Derby day, and when the millionaire dilettante owners go home and the network trucks pack up their cameras, what we have left is Luck, HBO’s new show about the murky tales that take place in the stables, on the backstretch at dawn, and in the minds of hopeless gamblers. Sports journalist Dick Schaap once described the unique allure of horse racing as “the scent of larceny,” and last night’s pilot was thick with it.

Things are looking up for Chester Bernstein, A.K.A. Ace (Dustin Hoffman) when we first meet him. He’s getting out of jail, but he doesn’t seem too excited by his change in address. Instead, he seems agitated, jumpy, and when he’s picked up by his driver, Gus (Dennis Farina), he’s mostly quiet until he finally asks Gus to get him a tape recorder. Why would a guy named Ace just out of prison want a tape recorder?

Turns out Gus might be the richest chauffeur in California. He won a slot machine jackpot in Vegas when Ace was in the clink, and plunked down $2 million to buy a first-class thoroughbred. How ‘bout that?

Early in the morning, the racetrack at Santa Anita is already alive with action. Trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) is prepping his horses for the day’s races. He flirts with the pretty vet (Jill Hennessy) and barely acknowledges the apprentice jockey assigned to warming up his horse… until the Cajun kid, Leon (Tom Payne), tells him how big he’s going to win this afternoon. Turo snaps at the kid to shut his mouth about any such thing. Turo has plans for this horse — a longshot — and the last thing he needs is some “nobody triple-bug apprentice” jockey ruining his action.

Not far away, Walter (Nick Nolte) is prepping his own horse. Walter’s been around, you can tell, but he doesn’t say much — except to the horse. He’s been pampering this colt, but today is going to be different. “Maybe you let him stretch out a little,” he instructs the pretty Irish exercise rider who hops aboard, careful to look around to make sure no one heard him. Walter retreats to the grandstand with his binoculars and stop-watch and what he sees of his horse takes his breath away. “Guess I still know a peach when I see one,” he says to himself.

Walter isn’t the only one to see something special in his horse. A trio of degenerates gather near the rail, strategizing their day’s bets. They’re aiming for the Pick 6 jackpot — pick six consecutive winners correctly and win as much as $2.7 million. Jerry (Jason Gedrick) has his picks ready, but there’s a problem. He’s tapped out, broke. Yesterday, he went home with $390 in winnings, and now he’s busted. He tells oxygen-mask Marcus (Kevin Dunn) that he lost the money playing poker at the casino, but take a closer look at Jerry. He looks a little strung out. Is he a bad poker player or does he have other habits that Marcus and the crew aren’t aware of?

To increase their odds of winning, the Degenerates intend to bet on several horses in each race — except in the fourth race. Bucking conventional wisdom, Jerry thinks Turo’s longshot is a sure-thing. He’s not really betting on the horse, Mon Gateau, or its Cajun rider — he’s betting on the cagy Turo, who might just have a history of longshots inexplicably paying off. Jerry knows his stuff, he’s confident in his selections, but he too is distracted when Walter’s horse barrels around the last turn like a locomotive. Who is that horse?

NEXT: The Degenerates want Mon Gateau and to eat it too

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