HBO's 'Luck': Hollywood Goes to the Races

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The dark series, with its brilliant cinematography, is a paean to people who believe that things happen for a reason.

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HBO

When it comes to luck, and the new HBO series Luck, there is no in-between. There is only good luck and bad luck. And the nine-episode-long morality play brought to us by creators Michael Mann and David Milch--not brought to us, more like thrown in our faces--doesn't pretend to argue otherwise. The low are raised high in this dark work about human vanity and vice. And the high are laid low. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. And then bad things just happen. It's a dramatic series, and a powerful paean, for all you people out there who don't believe that shit just happens.

About the only thing about Luck—which premieres on Sunday at 9 pm Eastern—that comes directly and honestly at you is the title. The title--and of course the horses, the magnificent animals, who grace the screen in every episode as brilliant props. As a horseman, I came to Luck hoping that it would, at last, be the top-shelf portrayal of horse racing that America has long deserved but never seen. In this, I was keenly disappointed. There is still a larger story for Hollywood to tell about the backstretch and about the good (and the good people) in the horse industry. A softer story. A nobler one in which the characters are more admirable, less feared, and certainly more average in their lifestyles.

But I wasn't disappointed with the series itself. It was called Luck, after all, and not Racing Luck, so no one ought to be surprised that the story is more about gambling than it is about horses. The series is nine hours of lies and paranoia, revenge and redemption, sweet and sour. It is about a little bit of love and a whole lot of dread, which I suppose you could say about a lot of industries and a lot of workers. Oh, and the cinematography, especially at the track and of the races, is simply stunning-- a new standard by which future horse racing movies will have to be judged.

Luck is one part Sopranos (when a body is dumped overboard in a later episode you feel like Big Pussy Bonpensiero is going to rise back up), one part Deadwood (the opening credits tell us that) one part Day At The Races (who owns which horse again?), one part Black Beauty and one part Good Fellas (this time, it's an ashtray that breaks open a skull). The series highlights some of the harshest truths about the world of horse racing and gambling. It's often an ugly view, painful to watch, but then the truth hurts, right? Especially when you lose the bet, or the race, or, God forbid, the horse itself.

Whatever else Mann and Milch may achieve with Luck, they already have likely succeeded where everyone else has failed for generations: The series will unite the gamblers with the trainers with the racehorse owners with the casino operators with the Tribal leaders with the jockeys with the regulators. It will unite New York with Kentucky with California. Everyone in the horseracing orbit, for one reason or another, will hate the series for the way it portrays their little corner of the two interconnected industries. And of course everyone who is anyone in either industry will watch it, too. "Whaddaya think?" will be the question asked in every shed row next Monday morning.

They'll likely say they find distorted the view back from the mirror. Luck skews the reflection of both the sport of Thoroughbred racing and the gambling industry by highlighting the extremes. That's what Hollywood does, right? It takes the outliers and the exaggerated and it turns them into stereotypes. Luck isn't a documentary about horse racing--or about gambling. It's a story about archetypes who orbit around the horses and the track. Damon Runyon once portrayed these backstretch operators as whimsical. Mann and Milch portray them as grim fatalists. Runyon saw the humor in their failed expectations. Luck thinks there's nothing funny about it.
 
At the bottom end of the spectrum, we are introduced to a group of four diehard gamblers, led by the brilliant Kevin Dunn as the disabled, breathless, cranky Marcus. At the other end of the line is Dustin Hoffman, as Ace Bernstein, the mobbed-up guy just out of prison who has eyes for a special horse, the racetrack, and for California racing itself. The only thing they have in common, aside from wanting to spend a lot of time at the track, is that they both have a dim view of human nature. And why not? One is scarred on the outside; the other on the inside. One expresses it in virtually every sentence. The other hides it behind a rich mask. 

In between the low of Marcus and the high of Ace there is the craggy Kentucky trainer, Walter Smith, played by Nick Nolte, out looking for redemption with a colt by a sire who mysteriously died. Here Mann and Milch (and fellow executive producer Carolyn Strauss) are channeling the famous (and still murky) story of Calumet Farms and the death of the great sire Alydar. Nolte's character, Walter Smith, also helps us understand the grim world of jockeys. And here Gary Stevens, the real-life legend, steals the show as Ronnie Jenkins, the aging, drug-addled jock looking for one more shot at glory.

The writing is good. Milch always seems to deliver on that promise and the language of the track is genuine and well delivered. So is the casting. John Ortiz memorably plays a sleazy trainer, Turo Escalante, who turns out to have a soul. Dennis Farina--old "Ray Bones" himself!--nicely plays Bernstein's tempered bodyguard and consigliere Gus Demitriou. And Kerry Condon, as "Rosie," the young jockey who seems to be the only optimist sighted during the entire series, should earn some praise from critics, too. And Jill Hennessy, who plays a vet and Escalante's love interest? She could entrance me by reading a phone book.

But everything was so... so California. I found myself wondering throughout the series how very different its series would be--from the narrative to the casting to the background--if it were filmed and set in New York or in Kentucky, the other two points of Thoroughbred racing's main triangle. In the end, Luck is about a form of luck particular to California's racing scene, and to its gaming dynamic, and if the series ever makes it back for a second season I hope we'll see a change of venue, to Belmont Park or to Aqueduct back East or to Churchill Downs or to Keeneland down in the Bluegrass.

When it comes to horse racing, in other words, California ain't the only game in town. And yet the only other racing venue even mentioned, as near as I can remember, is a relatively small track in Oregon named Portland Meadows. Of Kentucky, which serves as the eternal heart of the industry because it's where most of the racehorses are bred, born and raised, all we get only a few mumbled references by Nolte's Smith. Alone, he's simply not enough to fairly represent the Bluegrass, much in the same way that Condon's Rosie isn't enough to fairly portray the eternal optimism that is also at the heart of the sport. 

The series achieves many milestones worth noting here. For example, one of the miraculous feelings it generates, later in the series, is a genuine sense of what an owner of a racehorse feels when his or her horse is racing and has a chance to win. As a small-time owner and breeder, whose horses have occasionally won, I promise here that what some of you will feel toward the races that come at the end of the series is the way you truly would feel if you owned the horses yourself. That is no small cinematic achievement. It's something that Seabiscuit and Secretariat and even the umder-appreciated Dreamer never made me feel.

What Mann and Milch also capture here amid the chicanery and the chaos is the essence of the preternatural connection between human and horse. It surely is no coincidence in the series that two of its toughest characters, Bernstein and Demitriou, fall head over heels in love with their horse--and with racing itself. "That's some beautiful fuckin' horse," says Demitriou, the strong arm, as he falls asleep toward the end of episode three. And Bernstein? I mean, Hoffman? His scenes with the horses are by far his best of the series. All due respect to the great actor but the horses, like children, always steal the scene.

Another grand achievement of Luck is its timing. Its narrative includes an essential (and, again disconcerting) truth about the current real-world tension between casino corporations and the racing industry. In real life, most gaming corporations hate horse racing, which they consider a dying sport. Yet most track owners and operators need gaming to survive. Meanwhile, the legislators are beholden to the casino interests and their lobbyists, who don't generally support racing. The series thus comes at a pivotal time, and many believe a critical time, in the history of the intersection of these two evolving industries. 

Indeed, Luck portrays a scenario that in some ways is playing out, for real, 3,000 miles away from Hollywood, at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It is home to the most famous harness racing track in North America. And it has just been transferred from state control to the control of a man named Jeff Gural. He wants to bring gaming to the track-- wants to help create a world-class casino just a few miles from the heart of Manhattan-- but is being stymied by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the Atlantic City lobby. That's also a topic for season two if Luck gets that far.

All horse players die broke, Damon Runyon famously wrote, and I recommend the great writer still if you are looking for something softer about humans and racehorses. Luck instead is a brooding bit of work, lighted up well by Hollywood, which few in racing or gaming will be happy to know you are watching. As somewhat of an insider to some of this, all I can say is: Not every trainer in horse racing is crooked, not every owner is a freak, and not every bettor is a degenerate. There is an awful lot of good on the backstretch and in the grandstand, an awful lot the series doesn't ever let its well-aimed cameras see. 

Some people will love Luck. Some will find it too slow. And some will consider it too insular to appeal to the broader audience HBO welcomes. Me? I hope the series is a raging success so that it comes back for another season and then another one after that. Maybe by then, by the sheer force of its popularity, the leaders of the horse racing industry, and their tribunes in government, will have been roused out of their torpor to secure the future of the sport of Kings. And maybe then we'll also be one step closer to having Hollywood give us the horse racing story, the noble one, that so many of us want.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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