This is not your typical Hollywood depiction of horse racing’s beauty, though “Luck,” which debuts Sunday at 9 p.m., is a collaboration of two Hollywood heavyweights, director Michael Mann (“Miami Vice,” “The Insider”) and creator-writer David Milch (“Hill Street Blues,” “Deadwood.”) While Mann oversaw the camerawork that yielded striking depictions of horses and racing action, Milch brought to life the hard-edged aspects of the sport. He had been preparing for this assignment for most of his 66 years.
Milch remembers that he was about 6 years old when his father introduced him to horse racing with a trip to Saratoga. He has been hooked ever since, but what hooked him was not the sport’s beauty but “the degenerate side of the game.” He said, “Dad was related to all kind of bookmakers and nefarious types, and all of that appealed to me.”
Milch is a gambler and admits he has gone though some degenerate phases of his own. He has experienced some great triumphs — he cashed a $161,659 Pick Six at Hollywood Park by keying a horse he owned, and he owned two winners of Breeders’ Cup events, Gilded Time in 1992 and Val Royal in 2001. He knows the racing world thoroughly and recognizes it as a perfect setting for a drama.
“There’s no human type that’s not represented at the racetrack,” he said.
Milch creates characters with subtlety. In “Deadwood,” his incomparable drama about the Old West, the good guys invariably had a dark side; the strong characters harbored doubts and anxieties. They revealed their nature gradually, over the course of many episodes, and were never cliched or one-dimensional. In “Luck,” people familiar with the racetrack will immediately recognize the realism in the depiction of the trainers, the vets, the jockeys, their agents and especially the gamblers. There are no stereotypes here.
Non-racetrackers, however, may find themselves initially confused, because “Luck” thrusts them into the midst of an unfamiliar subculture without trying to clarify the action. When the gamblers are concocting their Pick Six play and discussing why they are singling (i.e., standing alone with) an improbable horse who hasn’t raced in two years, no character offers a primer on Pick Six mechanics for the edification of the audience. That’s Milch’s style. “To do otherwise would be to dumb down the characters,” he said. Though viewers may not understand everything — and are not expected to — Milch hopes they will be drawn into “Luck” by the compelling characters and their intersecting story lines.