In "Luck" - by Lenny Shulman

(Originally published in the January 28, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at 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.”

24 Comments

Leave a Comment:

fightonfig

Probably get a little better ratings than the preview, with all

the promo ads.  Don't think Dave

approached a network.  A life long

fan/player, I don't have cable so

won't watch.  But seems like the

life of dick dutrow jr, somewhat !

Only diff one owner, one trainer !

24 Jan 2012 12:36 PM
NJinHB

I don't know,I still think showing a breakdown up close behind the tarp was a mistake. Made me wince and I'm a lifelong racing fan. What would a "curious about racing"sports fan think of it? We need them to show up at the track!Just wish he would have done it further along in the series if he insisted on including it.  

24 Jan 2012 1:58 PM
thomas clark

Have been a big fan but it must be that new story lines and charachters will be introduced because the first episode portrays the game in a terrible light with shady gangsters and dangling broken legs dominating the landscape.

25 Jan 2012 6:08 AM
Sarah Toga

Lenny, Thanks for this great article. I wonder if Milch will create any storylines about retired thoroughbreds, about what happens to these noble creatures after their last race. That would be something! Owner Paul Saylor has just issued a $50,000 matching gift challenge for donations to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. www.bloodhorse.com/.../saylor-issues-challenge-to-benefit-trf  TRF needs support -- maybe some other owners can issue their own matching gift challenge?

25 Jan 2012 9:02 AM
bellesforever

Finally a movie for real racing fans..maybe because it is more real than a Disney film it will put the cool back into racing!

25 Jan 2012 12:59 PM
Steel Dragon

Lenny, please do your readers a favor and reprint or post a link to the unforgettable profile you did on Milch many years ago. Best thing I ever read in Blood Horse. Shocking and brutal - I thought it was courageous of the magazine to even print it. Thanks for the warning about the breakdown scene. I might have to skip it now. Bad enough seeing 'em live through the binocs. Anyway, has the racetrack ever been accurately depicted on film? Not to my knowledge...

25 Jan 2012 8:51 PM
Slew

A devotee of New Orleans, I was sorely tempted to follow HBO's series, "Treme"...but I'm cheap and didn't.  (Though I eventually did buy the DVD set.)

A little more than 3 months to the Kentucky Derby and HBO introduces "Luck".  HRTV promotes it.  The reviews are all raves.  The trailers are stunning.  It's life at the track, warts and all.  "Hill Street Blues" was one of my favorite shows, and a groundbreaker, as was Wambaugh's "Police Story" back then.

But now...you want to tell me about the horses and sport I love.  I surrender.  I ordered HBO today, because it's not a series I want to miss.  Thank you David Milch.  Something is finally on TV that just might be worth its weight.  (besides "Southland").  I'm looking forward to what promises to be an enterprising glimpse into a world I love.

27 Jan 2012 6:02 PM
Slew

By the way, with respect to the criticsm of the scene involving a horse breaking down, I have to say...If you follow the sport closely, you unfortunately see it often enough.  If you watch horse racing only occassionally, you saw Barbaro and Eight Bells break down.  It's one of the most heart-breaking aspects of the sport, but it really wouldn't be an honest portrayal of the sport unless it was included.  I have to say Bravo to Milch for being able to present a difficult scene with integrity with true compassion.

27 Jan 2012 6:13 PM
Slew

NJinHB: I have to say, to this day, it's difficult to erase my mind of Go For Wand getting up and still trying to run after she broke down.  As gruesome a scene as it was,(and it was no movie) it always serves to remind me of the brave hearts our champions really have...and how much more focused and strong and better they are than I am myself.

And, like it or not, gambling is a big part of keeping the tracks running, and gambling will always have its seamier side.  Doesn't Vegas exist because of a gangster named Bugsy?

As far as decent racing movies...try "Phar Lap"...on VHS...or even the 1931 Clark Gable intro in "Sporting Blood".

29 Jan 2012 10:23 AM
Stellar Jayne

Hi Lenny,

Thank you for this interesting article about Milch and Luck. I think he was right to show the 'dark' side (breakdowns - which are horrific and heartbreaking) and bright side of racing - the beautiful athletes and some of the colorful figures who partake in it.

Thank goodness he put together an accomplished cast who can command the viewership.

Unfortunately, I am unable to view the HBO series, as I don't subscribe to cable currently due to tight finances.  I can only hope reruns will be shown on one of the broadcast stations - abc, nbc, cbs, or appear on dvds at a reasonable price.

29 Jan 2012 10:42 AM
Giddyup

I don't know if this series will be as entertaining as watching that ATO clip of Steve and Lenny getting the jeapardy buzzer every time they tried to pick a race winner, but I hope it brings more fans to the sport.

29 Jan 2012 7:04 PM
SundaySilenced

I watched the episode and went on line to watch the bonus of next week. WOW is all I can say. I LOVE the intro music, I love the characters, love the story line. I was so absorbed in the build-up of winning the pick 6 that the break down totally caught me off guard, it was in a word shocking and just as disturbing as the ones I have seen live. But it was real, and the truth as it happens sometimes. I would have done a clipped heels, everyone's ok scene myself, especially for the first episode. But I'm not the director. I'm glad Mitch uses real facts and events that happen in the TB industry. (love the ref. to a certain stallion and farm in #2)I can't wait to see the rest. I'm already hooked!

30 Jan 2012 12:49 AM
Slew

Well, now that I've seen episode 1, I can say only Bravo...or maybe it would be best to say HBO!  It was a brilliant start.  The breakdown scene was actually minimized and never deserved the criticism. ESPN's movie on Ruffian was much more drastic. The acting was brilliant.  My itchy points problem involves minor editing details more than the story line itself.  The exercise rider for Nick Nolte was unable to balance herself on the horse in the work out.  And just prior to the the breakdown, no matter how many horses #8 passed, that #8 kept ending up behind 9 horses...in about 5 different takes.  

As far as my favorite scenes...what else...the close-ups of the horses' faces kept me mesmerized, and still as in love with racing as ever.

30 Jan 2012 10:27 AM
kittybay

As a horse owner & trainer, I was not impressed with the scene of the horse breaking down. It was way too gory & graphic and our industry does NOT need that kind of publicity. I realize it happens, but we horsemen try extremely hard to avoid it happening and we are devastated when it does. Other than that, I liked the show. But if they put something like this in it again, I'll stop watching.

30 Jan 2012 11:28 AM
200 lb. Jockey

I agree that the breakdown scene came way too early in the series, it really turned me off. I'm a part owner and I know the game inside and out, so I was disappointed that Milch started off the show like that. I was at the derby when EightBell's broke down and I can assure you that it really hurt the sport badly. 75,000 women were crying their eye's out and plenty of men were too. I wondered if the sport would ever recover. I picked Big Brown to win, but a lot of joy was sucked out of the experience by the breakdown. My girlfriend wouldn't even cash in her place ticket for Eight Bell's out of guilt. I can't understand why HBO or Milch thought that a breakdown scene in the pilot was a good idea. It had to come up in the show at some time, but the timing was poor and I'm surprised at the almost amateur decision to have it in the pilot. I was so excited about this show, but as a horse person I almost hated it. The fact that it makes punter's look like a bunch of baboon's doesn't help either. All in all, it was pretty absurd. HBO has a great track record (pun intended) of producing the best show's on TV, but Luck is not one of them yet. Any serious horse fan should be offended. This is not a love letter.

30 Jan 2012 12:41 PM
Needler in Virginia

My ONE criteria for watching or reading anything is that I must care for at least one character. I watched the "Luck" pilot last night and must admit I find all the characters loathsome and couldn't give a hairy rat's *** for any of them. No, I'm not naive; no, I'm not a Pollyanna; no, I don't believe in a perfect world, but good grief!! EVERYONE is a conniving, vengeful, corrupt mess? Thanks, I'd rather watch old reruns of "Jockey" where we saw a bit of "reality". This one turned me off long before the breakdown scene, which is heartbreaking as well as horrifying but, sadly, a part of racing. Nope,the characters are unpleasant, not people I would want to know and certainly not ones I care about, so "Luck" will have to roll on without me.

And SLEW!! Good to see you, sorry I've been silent for so long, but you know the circumstances.....

Cheers and safe trips.

30 Jan 2012 12:56 PM
Brenda S

I burst into tears as I heard the snap of the leg.  I know that it is an honest portrayal of the what can happen (I've unfortunately seen it live) and it was treated with respest and compassion.  But, I think he should have waited a few episodes to include it. I believe that it may turn off a few fans of the show...and the sport.  

30 Jan 2012 1:03 PM
Who

On a different note, Nick Nolte's face when he sees what he's got on the track ... beautiful image.  Hope springs eternal and fragile.

This being HBO, Milch, and Mann, let's not pin our hopes on a lot of simple, happy endings.  

I don't think you can do a show about racing without acknowledging the breakdowns and maybe this gets it out of the way early.  It's a basic dichotomy of our love for the game - treasure the horses, hate the cost some of them pay. Facing it head on in the premier is honest, and the depiction showed tenderness and the toll it takes on the connections as well.

30 Jan 2012 4:51 PM
thomas clark

An honest portrayal? Really ? Of every thousand starters one has a serious injury. Of those, perhaps a handful in a year sever a limb in the manner presented on "Luck"

31 Jan 2012 4:25 AM
Horsepower

No pasionate fan of racing can be happy with that first episode.  I was revved up for weeks to see the first show.  What a letdown......breakdown up close, 4 degenarate gamblers......excessive F bombs throughout the show.....a criminal mob type owning a 2 million dollar horse with a hidden ownership front man.....I did not see any positives.....admitedly , most of the above can be a "PORTION" of the business on occasion but what about all of the upside ????? I am all for fair and even illustration of the industry but this left a bad taste in my mouth.....i pray that future episodes will highlight the upside / good stories as strongly as episode one focused on the down sides

31 Jan 2012 5:01 PM
Needler in Virginia

Well said, Horsepower. What a lousy way to begin a "love song to racing", and if that was a love song, God help anything Mr Milch hates.............

Cheers and safe trips, anyway!

01 Feb 2012 11:52 PM
Racingfan

As a huge racing fan for nearly 40 years I was very disappointed!  I don't see this show bringing any new fans to the sport!  I agree with those who said if a breakdown must be included it should not have been in the pilot!  It portrayed racing in nothing but a negative light in my opinion and I did not care for any of the characters except Nick Nolte.  I also found it rather boring.  Not sure I will continue watching....

02 Feb 2012 7:30 AM
Soldier Course

I read in a recent letter to The Blood-Horse (print edition) that a potential racing fan will become a devoted racing fan the moment he sees a race unfold in the way he envisioned it. This struck me as an astute observation.

So "Luck" takes this momentum to what level by showing a devastating breakdown in the pilot episode?

02 Feb 2012 3:06 PM
Slew

I just watched "Seabiscuit" again.  It makes me wonder about some things.  It was beautifully filmed in sepia tone, and highlighted the up side, right down to the costuming.  

What makes me wonder is why no one made a public outcry as they reenacted the scene where Pollard's exercise ride spooked and dragged Pollard along the ground around the paddock long enough to break his leg in 10 or 11 places.  But a horse breaking down in a short scene raises a national outcry?  And CGA accomplished the effect?

As far as the characters who crawled out of the seamy underbelly of the racetrack...did you also notice Nick Nolte's character who absolutely loves his horse?  And when you hear the story of his horse's sire, Delphi, you will exclaim..."shades of Alydar!"  How the filming highlights the horses' eyes, how light plays across their faces, how the steam rises from their backs on a chilly morning.  And by gosh...Santa Anita is a star in "Luck", and Gary Stevens does a fine job of playing a broken jockey.  And the fact that the trainer, Escalanti is patterned on Julio Canani.  Some parts of the show are really down and dirty...so are parts of "Game of Thrones".  But if you really listen, you just might hear the music of the horses themselves.  (But I do miss hearing Denman calling those races).

03 Feb 2012 11:59 AM

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