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Luck had nothing to do with it

Skill and experience brought about star-studded HBO drama about horse-racing BY ALEX STRACHAN.

In a previous life, David Milch graduated summa cum laude from Yale University, and later worked at Yale as a writing teacher and lecturer. Milch won the Humanitas Prize and a pair of Writers Guild Awards for penning early-season scripts for Hill Street Blues, and was instrumental in the creation of NYPD Blue, together with Steven Bochco.

What he really wanted to do, though, was race horses. He hung out by the race track; he learned the ins and outs of The Daily Racing Form, EST 1894; and he played the numbers. He had a bit of luck – or skill, if you prefer – and, 10 years ago, a thoroughbred he owned, Val Royal, won the Breeders’ Cup.

Call it luck, call it skill, call it what you will, but Milch’s background in the Sport of Kings, coupled with three Emmy Awards for writing, led to Luck, the new horse-racing drama featuring Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Nick Nolte and Edmonton native Jill Hennessy. Luck bows Sunday, Jan. 29, on HBO Canada, the same day and date it makes its U.S. debut.

Feature filmmaker Michael Mann, the maker of Manhunter, Thief, Collateral, Public Enemies and Last of the Mohicans, among others, directed the premiere episode; other feature filmmakers were pencilled in to direct the first season’s remaining eight.

Luck HBOLuck was filmed virtually in its entirety at Southern California’s famous Santa Anita race track, a working race track and home to Winnipeg-born, Toronto-raised Chantal Sutherland, a jockey who’s been dubbed the Danica Patrick of horse racing, and who appears in Luck’s opening hour.

Santa Anita is serious horse-racing country, but the track operators opened their gates to a sprawling TV production – in part, Mann quipped to reporters in Los Angeles earlier his month, because Milch had blown so much money there over the years that it seemed only fair to repay the favour, at least in part. The result is an ensemble TV drama that lives, breathes and revels in the tiniest details of horse-racing lore.

Milch admitted that, while he was lucky to gain unfettered access to Santa Anita, bringing the scene alive on the small screen wasn’t as easy as simply setting up a camera and letting it roll. Milch wanted to reflect the hard grit of gambling, desperation and getting down-‘n’-dirty in the mud, but he also wanted to capture some of the grace and poetry of Santa Anita’s storied past.

“There’s a particular duality at work there,” Milch said. “It’s kind of a Santa Anita of the mind. You’re not literally using the lived history of Santa Anita, but it’s such a beautiful atmosphere, you’d be crazy not to honour it, shot for shot. We didn’t mean it to be worshipful, but at the same time, I would hope that the people who operate the track feel they’ve been well served. And because I had so little to do with the visual execution of the project, I can brag on it, without feeling I have a conflict of interest. I think it looks great.”

Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein in the series, a wealthy gambler and self-contained, self-taught racing expert in his late 60s, newly released from prison. He returns to the race track where he made his reputation, to settle old scores, and to make a killing by backing the right horse. Farina plays Bernstein’s driver, confidant and consigliere, Gus Demitriou. Nolte plays an aging one-time trainer-turned-owner, Walter Smith, a.k.a., “The Old Man,” who has old-school values and an old-school way of looking at things. Character actor John Ortiz plays Turo Escalante, a self-made horse trainer originally from Peru who jumped to the head of the training pack, despite an unsavoury past and a reputation for playing fast and loose with the rules. Hennessy plays Jo, a strong-willed track veterinarian who works for Escalante but sees through her boss’s ploys.

Milch says that, faced with such a rich cast of players to play with, Luck has virtually unlimited possibilities.

“I try not to know the specific details, but, overall, I like to know generally where the characters are going,” he said. “You want to be alive to the possibilities. We know where we’re going with this, more or less. But I couldn’t tell you, chapter and verse, where that is. And that’s as it should be, I think.”

Mann, for his part, had no qualms about returning to television after a career making feature films with the likes of Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Daniel Day Lewis. Mann originally made his name as the executive producer and showrunner of the seminal ’80s TV dramas, Miami Vice and Crime Story. The latter series starred Farina in his first dramatic leading role after a decade-long career as a police detective in Chicago’s burglary division.

TV has changed, Mann says: HBO, together with premium cable channels like FX, AMC, Showtime and Starz, is changing the rules of, not just TV, but feature filmmaking. It’s all about the writing, Mann insists. And increasingly, the best writing is being written for the small screen.

“The characters and the world that (Milch) created for Luck is so rich, and has so many wonderful story tracks, with characters that are so unpredictable and unusual and unique,” Mann said. “That was the big draw. For me, it’s always about the human story. Whatever the setting, whatever the attraction I may have for that setting, be it urban Chicago or a race track in California, to me, that’s like a negative test. You always have to take what you think you like about something, and work with that. To me, it’s: Is there a wonderful story there that you’re dying to tell? That’s what gets the blood running, and that’s what makes me move forward.”

This was that, Mann added. Luck may yet prove to be a lucky charm – but even if it isn’t, this was a project well worth taking.

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