12/12/2011 1:27PM

Review: HBO's 'Luck' gets down and dirty at the track

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A trainer hides a horse off a two-year layoff and puts him over at 12-1. A trio of degenerates gets a hustler to bankroll an $864 pick six ticket and takes down the whole pool. A high-level mob associate gets out of the clink and instructs his aide de camp to check up on his colicky, $2 million horse, whose true ownership is hidden. A longshot breaks down and is euthanized on the track while comforted by his bug-boy jock. And a gruff old trainer mutters to his promising new charge that the horse’s “daddy” was killed.

And that was just the first hour.

Welcome to the sinister world of “Luck,” the new HBO television series created by David Milch that premiered on Sunday night and will run for at least eight more episodes beginning on Jan. 29. Shot at sunny Santa Anita Park, heavily promoted on racing broadcasts, and packed with star power, the show stuffed a half-dozen loosely related subplots into its pilot while pulling no punches on casting light on racing’s darkest crevices.

That’s to be expected from Milch, a four-time Emmy winner, horseplayer, and horse owner whose credits include “Hill Street Blues” and “Deadwood,” the brutally dramatic Wild West adult-soap that lasted three seasons on HBO. Milch, along with the pilot’s director, Michael Mann, have nearly made a fetish out of creating foul-mouthed, hard-boiled characters who exist a few steps on either side of the line separating good from bad, and Luck’s first episode hewed closely to the formula.

The cast’s headliner is two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, who plays mobster Chester Bernstein (the name references Arnold Rothstein, a high-stakes horseplayer and gambler with mob ties who may have fixed the 1919 World Series). Just released from federal prison after serving a three-year stint and likely suffering from the onset of dementia, Bernstein hints that he landed in jail after either protecting higher-ups and/or being framed, and in previews for the rest of the season, it’s clear that a major plot development will revolve around Bernstein’s efforts to exact revenge while taking control of the racetrack to turn it into a casino, which, anachronistically, isn’t a job for criminals anymore.

Nick Nolte plays the gruff old trainer, known simply as the “The Old Man,” and it appears that the new horse in his barn has the capability to both turn his fortune and provide redemption for the death of the horse’s father. Cryptically, Nolte grumbles to the horse that he at least heard what happened when his sire was killed.

Milch does an effective job tying some of the plots together by using the 12-1 hidden horse as a key factor in the pick six score and by putting Bernstein’s horse in the same barn. John Ortiz plays Bernstein’s shrewd trainer, Turo Escalante, who’s got a thick Spanish accent and a thing for his vet, played by “Law and Order” veteran Jill Hennessey, whose first scene incorporated the performance of a rectal palpation.

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. All in all, for television, the pilot did a reasonably good job in depicting life at the racetrack – aside from some glaring errors, such as the cost of the pick-six ticket, and its reliance on stereotypes – and though Milch uses that first hour to milk racing’s most unseemly moments for drama, his own track record suggests that his characters have some good somewhere within them. You just might have to watch the whole season to see them revealed, though.

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