The Inside Track: Luck, HBO's Horse-Racing Series, Is about the Other American Pastime: Gaming the System

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Early in the new HBO series Luck, a gangster's chauffeur-cum-bodyguard, Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), goes to L.A.'s Santa Anita racetrack with his boss, Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), and makes a bet on a long shot. When the horse comes in, Gus clutches his winning ticket and says happily: "Don't ever let anyone tell you this isn't a great fucking country."

I wouldn't dream of it. But I will point out that Gus doesn't win his bet because he's been shrewd or even lucky. He wins because he's gotten an inside tip from a dodgy trainer, a fact that, in the exhilaration of victory, he either forgets or takes for granted.

Such is the slippery world of Luck, a program that aspires to capture not only the rich splendor of horse racing but this country in all its star-spangled dreams and delusions. This is no less than you'd expect of a show created by writer David Milch and co-produced by director Michael Mann, guys nobody would ever accuse of thinking small. While Mann has made a career in flamboyant pop mythology, from Miami Vice to The Last of the Mohicans to Public Enemies, Milch has spent years anatomizing the American soul (and underbelly), most famously in Deadwood where he took advantage of long-form TV to tell a story novelistic in its richness. At one in their obeisance to the samurai code of masculinity--which didn't stop them from battling on the set--they've cooked up a show that uses the racetrack to explore the tug-of-war between the opposing sides of our national psyche: the neon allure of excitement and moola and the quiet yearning for Something More.

If Deadwood was a teeming mural of wide-open capitalism in the Wild West--dominated by the Shakespearean brilliance of Ian McShane's A1 Swearengen--Luck takes place in a dwindling, present-day California where the cocky poker whiz is Chinese (of course) and financial types condescend even to mobsters about derivatives. The plot pinballs among three tiers of characters who embody an askew version of our class structure: At the top are scheming thugs; at the bottom, grungy hard-core gamblers; in between (and, to my mind the most interesting group) are those who do the tricky, laborious work that makes horse racing go. Nearly all the characters are male, which feels more Mannish than Milchy, and it's hard to imagine them voting, let alone voting for a Democrat.

Now, there's something more than a little nostalgic in making a TV series about horse racing, especially using it to explore American life in an era when the reigning metaphor is not the track but the casino. The Sport of Kings has faded badly in recent decades, perhaps because most of us have ridden more wooden horses than living ones. Few ordinary people follow racing anymore, not even the Triple Crown, and its remaining fans grumble about the sport's competitive decline: Races now typically resemble this year's Republican presidential field--a bunch of nags chasing a prohibitive favorite that the crowd is rooting against. The money that once supported the sport is being swallowed by all those electronic slots that hypnotized William Bennett. Indeed, it's central to Luck's not altogether satisfying plot that Hoffman's Ace plans to buy a racetrack and then turn it into a casino, a trick he thinks he can pull off because of California's crumbling tax base. Politicians are dying for any new form of revenue.

Yet for all this, Milch and Mann believe that horse racing still shimmers with a certain magic. They find it thrilling, and so do their characters, who turn every close race into a symphony of reaction shots. As the horses round the final turn of a big derby, the old Kentucky trainer Walter Smith (perma-grizzled Nick Nolte) starts swaying and wobbling like a man caught in a voodoo trance. Although the race isn't real, you may find your own heart beating faster too. Boasting some of the best racing footage I've seen, the show taps into the adrenaline rush of watching these amazing creatures charge down the homestretch, a feeling that's almost primal. …