The HBO series “Luck” begins on a day at Santa Anita with a huge Pick Six jackpot, and there couldn’t be a more vivid illustration of the horse racing world’s dichotomy. Santa Anita is as beautiful as any track on earth; every shot of its majestic mountain backdrop and its elegant paddock, populated by high-class thoroughbreds, evokes the grandeur of the sport. But a when a Pick Six is beckoning, the racetrack community is feverishly obsessed by the wager, with gamblers scheming to get information, raise a bankroll and obtain any edge that could lead them to a life-altering score.
A group of hardened horseplayers gathers at trackside, oblivious to the grandeur of Santa Anita, and one of them, Renzo, announces that he has $255 for his investment after cashing his disability check. Jerry arrives with a proposed Pick Six play written out on a napkin but confesses that he’s blown his whole bankroll in a poker game. He’ll need to see a loan shark. Marcus — disgusted, because he’s heard this all before — spits out: “The napkin is Jerry’s whole contribution. Sick degenerate!”
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.
Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is released from federal prison after serving three years and almost immediately heads to Santa Anita to check on a horse he bought — through a front man — for $2 million. That horse will become his obsession. Veteran trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) watches the development of a young colt who he hopes will atone for a scandal that scarred his professional life. Jockey Ronnie Jenkins (played by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens) turns bitter and malevolent as his career wanes. The four gamblers who played the Pick Six combination on the napkin confront unprecedented prosperity when they hit the big one.
Almost every character in “Luck” dreams of a life-altering big score — either a gambling win or an association with a horse who achieves some measure of greatness. But Milch’s dark vision suggests that people remain who they are and even the big score won’t necessarily transform their lives. After Jerry (Jason Gedrick) loses a sizable chunk of his winnings by gambling obsessively and self-destructively at the poker table, one of his Pick Six partners proposes bailing him out — “making him whole.” The cynical, wheelchair-bound Marcus (Kevin Dunn) scoffs at the notion. “Whatever is wrong with Jerry,” he says, “you don’t make him whole by giving him money. Whoever made him didn’t make him whole. That’s the way he is.”
If the characters in “Luck” are capable of any transformation, it is through association with the horses themselves. The degenerates with the Pick Six ticket act like kids around racehorses. Ace Bernstein, a tough guy to his core, is surprised to find himself enchanted by his horse. A female friend, involved with the care of thoroughbreds, tells him: “People change simply by being in proximity to horses. Their sighs, their virtues, their complicated nature bring out patience and respect. Don’t be afraid of that.” While Milch ordinarily eschews sentimentality, he recognizes that the strong affinity of people for the animals is part of the reality of the racetrack. In this respect, as in almost all others, “Luck” is a rare TV drama: It is authentic.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.