Going to the Races with ‘Luck’

By March 1, 2012
Close-up of Kerry Condon riding a Thoroughbred race horse.

Kerry Condon is an exercise rider with aspirations to race in "Luck." (Photo by Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO)

Filmed at Santa Anita Park and locations around Los Angeles, HBO’s new series “Luck” tells the story of track rats hoping for a rocket ride to glory on the backs of their magnificent Thoroughbreds. The series’ premiere season kicked-off  Jan. 29 and runs through April 22. [Editor’s note: HBO on March 14 announced the cancellation of  “Luck.” Story here.]

Equine enthusiasts are giving it rave reviews, while laymen seem puzzled over terms like “furlong,” “shed row” and  “Pick Six,” with one reviewer calling it “incomprehensible race track jargon” (HBO issued a glossary with the press kit). That didn’t stop 3.3 million viewers from tuning in to the first episodes, prompting the network  to announce in January that it has ordered a second season of 10 episodes to begin in January 2013.

Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman at the track.

Dustin Hoffman (right) is Ace and Dennis Farina his driver, Gus, in HBO's "Luck." (Photo by Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO)

The show features an impressive cast, notably Dustin Hoffman (in his first series TV role) as Chester “Ace” Bernstein and Nick Nolte as trainer-turned-owner Walter Smith.  The series opens with Ace getting released from three years in federal prison and picked up by his driver and bodyguard, Gus (Dennis Farina), who takes him to the track to meet his new $2 million Irish Thoroughbred.

The crew of characters that bring personality to any track is brought to colorful life by Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a “brilliant but disreputable” trainer; his love interest Jo (Jill Hennessy), a veterinarian; jockeys like the ambitious up-and-comers “Bug Boy” (Tom Payne) and Rosie (Kerry Condon), as well as the veteran Ronnie Jenkins (played by real-life racing Hall of Famer Gary Stevens);  sports agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind);   and of course a rumpled crew of motley gamblers, including Jerry (Jason Gedrick) and Marcus (Kevin Dunn).

The producers are no slouches either.  Series creator and executive producer David Milch has owned or co-owned “hundreds” of race horses over the years, including gilded Time, who won the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Val Royal, winner of the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Nick Nolte pets a black horse in a barn.

Nick Note is Walter, a trainer with a shady past. (Photo by Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO)

Milch, who wrote the first season’s nine episodes, is probably better known in Hollywood as the creator of HBO’s frontier Western series “Deadwood.” Executive producer Michael Mann, who also directed the “Luck” pilot, includes among his feature credits films such as Heat, Collateral and The Last of the Mohicans.

Mann, who owns a horse for recreational riding, says what appeals to him about Thoroughbreds is “the exquisite nature of the animals. You come to regard them as great athletes with sensitive spirits. The slightest shift in the attitude of the jockey is responded to by the race horse.”

As for working with them, he says, “Imagine going 40 to 43 miles an hour next to a 1,500-pound jackrabbit. In our frames of reference, animals that large aren’t supposed to move that fast.”

Milch’s connection to the Thoroughbreds runs a lot deeper. Growing up in the Saratoga area of  New York, he says, “My dad first took me to the track when I was five or six years old, and after that I would sneak out there on my own whenever I could. I would wear my dad’s fedora hat, and by the time I was eight I was reading the Daily Racing Form.”

He sums up the track as “a place of incomparable beauty. The animals and humans who inhabit it illustrate their best and worst possibilities. As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

That storytelling is hitting a nerve. “‘Luck’ is the creation of a man who not only loves horse racing, but the underbelly of life, too,” one Southern California racing insider said about Milch (which may explain why the word ‘degenerate’ pops up several times in the press materials,  and was picked up by several critics).

Cast of motley race track hangers on in the grandstand bleechers.

From left: Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster, Kevin Dunn and Jason Gedrick add color as track rats in "Luck." (Photo by Gusmano Cesaretti / HBO)

“His plan is not to make something sugar and spice; that’s not his style. He likes to get down and turn over the rocks. So far, he’s turned over his share with the series and I’m sure he has a few more to go. In the end, I believe he’ll expose as much good as bad and entertain us all in the process.”

Find out how to view previous epsidodes of Luck at www.HBOonDemand.com.

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