12/12/2011 10:50PM

"Luck" recap and reactions

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(Contains spoilers)

“You never get used to it. That’s what the Jim Beam is for.”

That line delivered by Ronnie Jenkins, an alcoholic jockey played by real-life Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, came after a scene in Sunday’s sneak peek of the pilot of “Luck,” HBO’s new horse racing drama, that signaled just how far the show would go in portraying the darker side of the sport. After graphically breaking down in the stretch, a horse is euthanized on the track in close up as the bug boy Leon (Tom Payne) pets his head and watches “the light go out of his eyes.” Not that anyone watching likely expected a light-hearted romp from the creator of “Deadwood” and the network of “The Sopranos.”

Moreso than HBO’s mob hit, David Milch’s “Luck” pilot called to mind the Baltimore police drama “The Wire” with its quick-moving, jargony dialogue and multiple plot strands that may or may not converge over the season’s nine episodes. Four gamblers chase a life-changing pick six; hardboot trainer Nick Nolte nurtures a potential Derby horse; and fresh-out-of-prison Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) buys a high-class Thoroughbred with Gus Demetriou (Dennis Farina) as his front man. Aside from one shirt-ripping, scenery-chewing scene (do they have self-tanner in prison?), Hoffman wasn’t a big part of the pilot, but his get-rich plan to bring a casino to Santa Anita promises to become a bigger plotline.

“Luck” definitely didn’t dumb down racing’s insider intricacies – some of the dialogue from trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz) bordered on cryptic. The pick-six syndicate’s rundown of their plays rang true to life, although the idea of a railbird needing to be told that the longest shot in the last leg would bring the biggest payout was probably the episode’s lone over-explaining eye-roll moment for a seasoned bettor. Whether the gambler characters rise above the level of two-dimensional “degenerates” - and whether “Luck” succeeds in hooking viewers on the highs of racing as well as the lows – will be seen over the remaining eight episodes when the series makes its official debut on Jan. 29, 2012.

- Dave Renard

More on "Luck"

Review by DRF's Matt Hegarty: HBO's 'Luck' gets down and dirty

"Racetrackers will have no problem following the subplots and language, but, in a series that is trying to appeal to a much larger audience, Milch is sometimes burdened with having to explain nuances that can make the script clunky, especially in the betting scenes ..."

The Onion's A.V. Club - Grade: A

"I thought this was the best pilot I’ve seen this TV season, by a fair degree. It’s got the typical HBO pilot thing where it’s less an episode of television than the first hour of a long movie or the first chapter of a book. But I was surprised at how readily I was drawn into the conflicts, characters, and horse-racing world of the show ..."

L.A. Times: A great and perilous experiment

"Anyone who has been to Santa Anita in the early morning hours knows it is a place of poetry and pathos. ... But how to tell the story of such a place without lapsing into overworked extremes, the sentiment of bond between human and horse, the simplistic adrenaline of a champion's tale, the heartbreak of gambling's larcenous core?"

New York Magazine: Handy guide to understanding 'Luck'

What's a pick six? Why does Leon get weighed holding a saddle? For the uninitiated or semi-initiated racing fan (or those who don't speak mumble), here's a primer on Sunday's pilot.

Reactions to “Luck” on Twitter:

@jockeychantal, who plays the character Lizzy: I kind of LOVED it!!!!!!

@andyserling: I thought " Luck " was great. Enjoyed it a lot. Excellent start.

@peterjborelli: I liked it & love horseracing in spotlight. But maybe #Luck projects bad image? Opp. for @NTRA & @DRFInsidePost to educate?

@Starofthenorth1: Think we'll still have a game to sell when Milch and Mann are done with us?

@tgrevelis: I'm predisposed to enjoy Luck, yet do far I don't find any character I can root for.