If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, get used to it. "Luck" (8 p.m. Jan. 29, HBO; 3 stars) is a sometimes confusing yet fascinating study of the colorful characters—the jockeys, trainers, owners, gamblers and railbirds—who populate horse-racing tracks.
You just may need a glossary of racing and gambling terms to understand it. (A railbird, by the way, is a fan who watches from the sideline rail. To break poorly means the horse starts a race slowly.)
As the series begins, mobster Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) leaves federal prison with vengeance on his mind. He’s picked up by his driver/bodyguard, Gus (Dennis Farina), who fronts as the owner of a $2 million Irish thoroughbred purchased by Ace and which, it seems, ties into his payback scheme.
Exactly what that scheme is remains as murky as the racing/gambling lingo. Creator David Milch (“Deadwood,” “John From Cincinnati”) and director/exec producer Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Miami Vice”) show as little concern with conventional plotting as they do with, you know, helping the audience understand what’s going on. Instead, they introduce us to a sordid assortment of racetrack folks who serve as the narrative framework of the story.
This seeming disregard for viewers could be unlucky for “Luck” because mainstream audiences are not really a patient lot. Yet if viewers hang on long enough to watch an emotional and beautifully filmed race in the fourth episode, they, like me, might become absolutely smitten with the story and its characters—each of whom embodies some instance of luck and the obsession, dedication and sometimes addiction behind it.
Horse owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) is haunted by past mistakes but seeks redemption in his new horse, a champ in the making that young exercise rider Rosie (Kerry Condon) would like to race as its jockey. A trainer named Escalante (John Ortiz) knows how to work some shady deals as well has the horses, but he can’t figure out how to do right by the track veterinarian (Jill Hennessy) he won’t admit he loves. Down-on-his-luck agent Joey (Richard Kind) can’t get a gig for his client, Leon (Tom Payne), who struggles to keep his weight down, while he can’t get rid of his former client Ronnie (former jockey turned actor Gary Stevens), who is trying to stay sober. Finally, a quartet of gamblers (Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, Jason Gedrick and Ian Hart) who live in a fleebag motel near the track exist on the hope that betting gives them.
(If you notice an overwhelming ratio of male to female characters, don’t be surprised. Milch and Mann are nothing if not masters of hyper-masculine storytelling. Their works just oozes testosterone; another theme of “Luck” seems to be the oft-unspoken, platonic love that fuels male friendships.)
As expected, Hoffman is great as Ace, barely hiding his venegeful fury under a calm façade, but also showing surprising tenderness when he meets his horse. Chicago native Farina delivers one of his best performances that I’ve seen. Gus is Ace’s enforcer, yet Farina injects humanity and humor in nearly every scene. Kind plays the agent Joey as a man who slowly realizes that no matter how hard he works, he will never be able to create his own luck. It’s heartbreaking.
Dunn and Gedrick deserve a shout-out as well. Heck, they all do. “Luck” has so many great performances I wonder how, come awards time, any other show will be able to compete for space on the nominee lists.
“Luck” also benefits from brilliant cinematography and striking sense of place, and those amazing horse races. Mann sets the bar for the directors of later episodes with his beautifully filmed race in the premiere.
So if nothing else, stick around for the horses and their races. I've now finished the nine-episode first season, and I can assure you that it gallops through the eighth pole and across the wire. (Oh, sorry: The eighth pole is marker indicating an eighth of a mile to the wire. The wire, of course, is the finish line. See the glossary below.)
Watch the "Luck" promos
"LUCK" GLOSSARY PROVIDED BY HBO
Agents: Three types: Owner's, Jockey's and Bloodstock. An Owner's agent would be his racing manager, dealing with business regarding the trainers and administrative duties. The Jockey's agent represents his client in procurement of mounts. Bloodstock agents buy and sell horses either privately or at auction sales.
Backstretch: The straight-away on the far side of the track.
Blood Horse: Refers to a Thoroughbred Race Horse used for breeding purposes.
Breeder: The person who owns the Mare (mother) at the time a horse is foaled.
Breezing: A workout in which the horse is asked to run at full stride for a specific distance as part of fitness training.