(Originally published in the January 28, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
He hasn’t campaigned a stakes winner since Charmo took the San Francisco Breeders’ Cup Mile Stakes (gr. IIT) at Golden Gate Fields in 2006, but this weekend David Milch will be the most important owner in Thoroughbred racing. Milch is the creator and writer of “Luck,” the HBO series dealing with life around a racetrack that premieres Jan. 29.
You won’t confuse the 30-minute program with any of the horse racing films that have opened in recent years; this isn’t a Disney production. But even through the portrayal of flawed characters, Milch maintains that “Luck” is “a love letter to the game.” Of course, a Milch love letter reads grittier and saltier than the average Valentine’s Day card.
The show’s pedigree certainly bodes well. Film superstar Dustin Hoffman embarks on his first regular television role as a felon who returns to the sport. Longtime film star Nick Nolte plays a veteran trainer with the blessing of a potentially great runner in his shedrow.
Milch, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., came to racing as a child when he would spend a week each summer with his family at Saratoga. It is there that he developed a love for horses and the sport while also taking on a sometimes unhealthy proclivity toward gambling.
“When I was around 5 or 6, my father suggested since he knew I was a degenerate gambler he would facilitate my access,” said Milch. “So he set me up with Max the waiter on the second floor at Saratoga so we could circumvent having to be 18 to bet.”
Milch’s life has been a high-wire act combining genius and abuse. He graduated first in his class from Yale and subsequently taught there, collaborating with distinguished writers such as Robert Penn Warren on a series of literature textbooks. Concurrently, his bouts with substance abuse raged, ultimately landing him a stint in a Mexican prison.
Thirty years ago Milch was hired by producer Steven Bochco, with whom he still sometimes collaborates, to write episodes of the hit TV show “Hill Street Blues.” Milch’s first script earned him an Emmy Award. He also won a Humanitas Prize, good for $15,000.
“They were holding a gun to my head,” he said. “I had to use that to buy a horse.”
Both careers have proceeded apace. Milch has two Breeders’ Cup winners in his portfolio, Gilded Time, the brilliant winner of the Juvenile (gr. I) in 1992, who still stands at stud; and Val Royal, who won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT). His other graded stakes winners are Tuzla, My Style, Track Monarch, Finder’s Fortune, Above Perfection, and Disturbingthepeace.
As for his writing career, Milch created the ground-breaking ABC series “NYPD Blue,” a brilliant, hard-hitting cop show that ran for 12 years. Moving to the freedom that pay TV provides, Milch helmed the equally fantastic “Deadwood,” which ended far too soon after three seasons.
With “Luck,” Milch is playing in an arena that requires far less research than his earlier endeavors but is trickier for him nonetheless.
“It is much harder to retain perspective,” he noted. “I love the game so much, and it’s so important to me to get it right. I’m trying always to neutralize what may be distortions of perspective, and it feels like the stakes are higher than in anything I’ve worked on before. I’m awfully pleased with the way that things have worked, but it feels a little bit like you’re in church.”
Although “Luck” is just beginning its rookie year, HBO has already ordered a second season. Milch said that Hoffman’s character is a visionary with ideas for restoring and resuscitating the sport.
“It seems to me the industry has been unfairly maligned,” said Milch. “It’s a creature of changing circumstances, and it’s very hard for it to adapt as quickly as it’s needed to, but I think it’s coming along.”
Representative of Milch’s unflinchingly uncompromising take on his subjects, he has invited controversy in the first episode of “Luck” by including a scene in which a horse breaks down during a race.
“I worried about that scene’s effect on viewers quite a bit,” he said. “But it’s part of the business and there was nothing sensationalistic about the treatment of it. The helplessness of the animal is treated with compassion and respect, and I don’t regret that we included that. I hope a regular viewer will come to realize that, like in any long-term relationship, there will be some rocky moments, but that fundamentally this show represents a positive treatment of our sport.”
Milch, who today admits to owning a couple of horses “of not much distinction,” relishes the opportunity to expose horse racing to an audience that has largely been unfamiliar to the behind-the-scenes machinations of the sport. Asked what he hoped newcomers would take away from viewing “Luck,” Milch did not hesitate.
“That it’s the greatest game in the world.”