01/26/2012 2:59PM

New drama 'Luck' reveals racing as Milch sees it

Gusmano Casaretti/HBO
David Milch put much of his experience and knowledge as a horse owner and horseplayer into his scripts for “Luck.” The show premieres Sunday on HBO.

Back in the 1970s, David Milch and Frank Capra Jr. had unconnected brainstorms that a racing show on TV would sell. Milch even put a title, “The Main Chance,” on his opus. It was not by accident that he gravitated to racing for subject matter. His father, a surgeon in Buffalo, N.Y., owned horses and began taking his son to Saratoga when little David was still in short pants. David Milch’s uncles liked everyone to believe they were in the furniture business, but making book was really the name of their game.

Capra, envisioning a “Dragnet” with racetrack cops instead of Sgt. Joe Friday, asked the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau for access to files for script ideas. Racing hadn’t outlived its heyday yet and was in a position to turn Capra down, but finally Cliff Wickman, the former FBI man under J. Edgar Hoover who headed the TRPB, said: “Let’s give him some stuff. He might go ahead and do it anyway, and then where would we be? If we work with him, at least we have input, and maybe we can soften the really bad goings on.”

It all became academic when Capra was unable to make his idea fly. Milch hadn’t heard about that abortive project, and when told about it recently he said: “Sounds like it might have been a great idea.” If Capra ever wanted to go back to his proposal, he died first. Milch, approaching 67, has lived long enough (perhaps by no fault of his own; he once had a heroin habit and did one or two crazy things) to pull “The Main Chance” out of the trunk and sell it, in a reincarnation, to HBO. It is called “Luck,” and it has attracted a director like Michael Mann and an actor like Dustin Hoffman and makes its debut Sunday night for a season-long nine episodes.

Capra’s shows were all going to be one-offs. Each week there would be a stand-alone storyline with a beginning and an end; “Luck” traffics with an ensemble cast, each of them with enough issues to keep Dr. Phil going for a year. By the last installment, Milch and Mann have left enough loose ends to merit a second season, which wouldn’t make either one of them mad.

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Asked why he revisited “The Main Chance” five years ago and began furiously rewriting it, Milch said: “I figured that as long as I was getting my brains beat in [at the betting windows], I might as well try to make a few bucks in the process.”

Milch can tell engaging stories about his betting coups − for a New Yorker profile several years ago, he related how he cashed a $7,500 across-the-board telephone bet on a horse whose name he didn’t even know − but in a life of betting tens of thousands of dollars on football games as well as horse races, the valleys have met the peaks. The downside to horse ownership apparently has caught up with Milch as well. Racing fans may know Milch as the jubilant owner who won two Breeders’ Cup races − with Gilded Time in the 1992 Juvenile and Val Royal in the 2001 Mile − but when asked how many horses he currently has in training, he laughingly said: “It depends on who I’m lying to.” Then he said he had two, one with Darrell Vienna and another with Julio Canani, and that sounded like a small enough number not to be a lie.

The landscape is littered with racetracks that have turned down TV and movie requests to use their facilities for projects − for the very reason that Wickman and the TRPB hesitated with Capra. As far back as the 1950s, when an unheralded, underfinanced moviemaker named Stanley Kubrick wanted to shoot a movie about a robbery at a track, several East Coast tracks blanched at the script and said no. So Kubrick went to Bay Meadows and made “The Killing,” one of the best racing movies ever done. Purists can say that “The Killing” is really not a racetrack movie, it’s a film about a crew of well-defined lowlifes who happen to stage their caper at a track. Likewise, “Luck” drops Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and the others into a milieu that’s money-driven, but it needn’t have been so heavy on the byzantine world of horse betting. Those characters could just as easily have been denizens of a Las Vegas casino, and in fact one of them, a horseplayer played by Jason Gedrick, can’t decide whether his poison should be pick sixes or all-night rounds of Texas hold-em at California card clubs.

Just as a horse gets killed in “The Killing” − he’s shot in the middle of a race by a sniper hired to distract the authorities from the robbery − a horse dies, after an ugly breakdown, in the very pilot of “Luck,” which was shown on HBO last month. Santa Anita officials saw the scripts in advance and knew this was coming. All the racing action was shot at their track. A Santa Anita under the late Bob Strub probably would never have greenlighted Milch − Strub was sanctimonious, highly protective of the game’s image, and preferred the word “wagering” to “betting” − but this is a Frank Stronach Santa Anita, at a time when the cliché, “Say anything you want, just as long as you spell our name right,” makes sense to some in the industry.

When Santa Anita was shown Milch’s early script, Pete Siberell, director of community service and special projects at Santa Anita, said to Ron Charles and George Haines: “We don’t need to do this.” Charles, running Santa Anita for Stronach at the time, has since left and been succeeded by Haines. Siberell said Santa Anita talked to Milch about toning down the material.

“There was a lot of respect for David and his passion as a horse owner and horseplayer,” Siberell said. “What he’s done is very gritty television, and HBO seems to get away with language that you don’t hardly see anywhere else. But the track scenes are beautifully photographed, putting Santa Anita to good advantage. The excitement of a big crowd at a big race is what we hope the audience will remember. We’re happy with the series in the long run, and hope it continues. The good from the show outweighs the bad.”

The industry, of course, hoped for a boost from the theatrical movies “Seabiscuit,” an Academy Award nominee for best picture, and “Secretariat.” If they helped the sagging sport, it was only in trickles. The flip side to “Luck” is that it might turn people off from going to the track. Many of the characters are mercenaries, uncaring about anything except the bottom line. Typical of a David Milch script, potty-mouthed dialogue is everywhere. But Milch and his stable of writers don’t live by billingsgate alone. There is a leitmotif about a motley quartet of handicappers who, at first blush, could be Larry, Curly, and Moe, and a stooge to be named later. They are not exactly like the Tin Woodman, en route to Oz while looking for a heart, but by the end of the series they’re given one, anyway.

Milch is known for group writing in developing his stories − writers in “Luck” include John Perrotta, a racetracker who’s worn many hats; Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for Daily Racing Form; Bill Barich, writer of an ode about trying to beat the races at Golden Gate Fields; and Eric Roth, an Oscar winner for the adapted screenplay of “Forrest Gump” − and while movies and television are frequently crafted via collaboration, he seems to take the technique to an extreme. For “Deadwood,” he did much of the writing himself, after marathon sessions with a few writers and several interns. One of the regular writers, according to the New Yorker, made his contributions from afar. “Thirteen people sitting in a windowless room. . . . no thanks,” Ted Mann said. “I don’t think I would’ve wanted to watch William Faulkner write, either.”

(Coincidentally, Milch’s next project for HBO will be about the works of Faulkner.)

“Every word that you hear will have gone through my typewriter,” Milch said of “Luck.” That was a figure of speech. Actually, he writes without a typewriter or a computer − he writes everything out in longhand.

As he pushed the envelope, Milch knew that what somebody called his “love letter to the game” wasn’t going to be roundly received by even those inside the game.

“There are bound to be some people who will have misgivings,” he said. “In a way, some people in racing are like an alcoholic. They walk around saying that nobody understands them.”

Dustin Hoffman’s character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein, wants money and revenge after spending three years in prison. And by the way, Bernstein wants to buy Santa Anita. Hoffman hadn’t done any TV in 25 years. But how many Focker movies can you do at 74 going on 75? To hear him tell it, Hoffman’s only experience with a racetrack was through stories told by his wife, Lisa. Her father, in Hoffman’s own words, was “a racetrack degenerate.”

“When she was 6 years old, she would go with him to the track and be his betting note-taker,” Hoffman said. “If a horse had kidney sweat, she would write it down.”

At a press tour that featured Milch, Mann, Nolte, and himself in a Pasadena hotel, Hoffman talked about his return to the box.

“I don’t need to butter up HBO,” he said. “The contract is done, and it’s too late for them to fire me. It’s hard for you to do your best work in the studio film system. There are meetings, there are committees. Movies have become a bastard art form. So on this, I’m working with just two guys [Milch and Mann] who want to do their best work. It was better than anything I expected. I thought it would be one of those things where you have to do 20 pages a day. I thought it would be like doing movies on cocaine, movies on speed. But it was exactly the opposite. We did the best we could with the time we had, and then came back the next day. They shot it digitally, with three cameras, which actors love, because you don’t have to repeat [scenes] and do coverage.”

In “Luck,” Ace Bernstein’s driver and confidant is Gus Dimitriou, played by Dennis Farina, a Chicago policeman who became an actor when Mann gave him a small part as a hood in the movie “The Thief,” starring James Caan. Hoffman was asked about Gus’s importance in Ace’s life.

“Gus is much more than Ace’s driver,” Hoffman said. “If you know anything about the mob − this mob, that mob, any mob − you know that most of those guys started out as drivers before they made it to the top. Lucky Luciano was a driver before he became the boss. This is Gus, how important he is to Ace: My own wife wouldn’t take a bullet for me.”

And Gus would?

“Yeah,” Hoffman said. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Milch told The New Yorker that Andy Sipowicz, the detective played by Dennis Franz in the Milch-created “NYPD Blue,” resembled Milch’s father, who battled with alcohol and painkillers. I played a game with Milch trying to guess whom some of the characters in “Luck” were drawn from.

The Peruvian trainer, played by John Ortiz: Julio Canani.

The jock with alcohol and drug problems, played by Gary Stevens: Pat Valenzuela and Chris Antley.

The vet who lives with the Peruvian trainer, played by Jill Hennessy: Jenine Sahadi (who had a long-term relationship with Canani).

“I can’t say you’re wrong on any of them,” Milch said, although he might have just been humoring me.

And one more guess − the old-timer trainer, played by Nick Nolte: Charlie Whittingham.

“Only Charlie didn’t have the twitch,” Milch said.

Nolte’s trainer, Walter Smith by name, has a good horse in “Luck” whose sire was allegedly killed by a bankrupt Kentucky farm for the insurance money. This is reminiscent of the furor that surrounded Calumet Farm after Alydar died in his stall.

Asked if he knew about the possible connection, Nolte, 70, said: “Sure, but I hope we didn’t hit it too hard. They finally said that Alydar died when he kicked his leg through the door, didn’t they?”

Yes and no, but J.T. Lundy, the president of Calumet at the time, was found guilty of other multiple charges, including fraud, and sentenced to prison.

I remember once sitting down for an interview in Lundy’s office, and the first words out of his mouth were: “If you misquote me one word, I’ll have my lawyers after your ass.”

When I spoke with Milch, I said: “Lundy was a very litigious guy. Were you worried about him suing over the Alydar reference?”

“They’d have to find him first,” Milch said.

I asked Dennis Farina if he had been cast against type in “Luck,” and he agreed. Except for one late scene, when muscle is required, Farina’s Gus Demitriou is pianissimo. Farina was a driver of sorts, still working for the Chicago police department, when he drove Mann around the city as they scouted for locations for “The Thief” 30 years ago.

“He acted crazy, he had a lot of personality,” said Mann, 68. “He looked like somebody who might make an actor.”

Before “Luck,” most of Farina’s work has been hard-edged, while on both sides of the law.

“Much of what goes on between Gus and Ace is unspoken,” Farina said. “Both guys have the ability to know what the other guy is thinking.”

Hoffman and Farina, 67, had never worked together − the closest they came was in “Get Shorty,” when Hoffman bypassed the title role and John Travolta landed the part. Unlike Hoffman and Mann, but more like Milch, Farina came to the project with a racetrack sensibility. He has been going to the races since he was 8, when his brother-in-law first took him to a track in his native Chicago. Playing a hit man in “Big Trouble,” which was shot in Miami, Farina latched on to a teamster/horseplayer connected with the movie. The teamster kept picking winners at Gulfstream Park, fed them to Farina, and they did nicely.

“That was such a deal,” Farina said. “I’m cashing all these tickets, and I’m not even going to the track. That guy was really good.”

In “Get Shorty,” Farina coldcocks a woman, bloodying her nose. Put that scene right alongside Richard Widmark throwing Mildred Dunnock down the stairs in a wheelchair in “Kiss of Death,” and James Cagney shoving a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in “The Public Enemy.”

So there is tough-guy Dennis Farina, between takes at Santa Anita, feeding a horse a carrot. Not even the inventive David Milch, in his wildest dreams, could have imagined what he had wrought.