By BETH HARRIS
David Milch had the script for a horse racing drama kicking around in his head for 30 years. The screenwriter and producer was just too busy living it to put words to paper.
As a 6-year-old, Milch first accompanied his father to the racetrack in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was too young to wager, but Milch’s father worked things out anyway.
“`You want to gamble, don’t you? Well, you can’t gamble because you have to be 18 years old,”’ Milch recalled his father telling him. “`I’ve set it up with Max the waiter. He’ll run your bets for you.”’
That mixed message sent Milch off on a lifelong fascination with the track and an eventual gambling addiction. Along the way, he owned two Breeders’ Cup champions.
Milch’s portrait of horse racing’s seedier side comes to life in the drama series “Luck,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, debuting Jan. 29 on HBO at 9 p.m. EST.
He couldn’t write it sooner “because I had to quit gambling,” he said.
The nine-episode first season was filmed at sun-dappled Santa Anita in suburban Arcadia, an art deco racetrack set against the San Gabriel Mountains. Milch has won and lost money there, but he said he never hit the betting windows during shooting.
“You can’t do what we were doing and conduct yourself that way,” he said. “It’s disrespectful to the material and distorts everything that you’re doing. I had to let that go.”
Michael Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) directed the pilot and Milch wrote it, with the eight subsequent episodes directed and written by others, including Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey.
Mann lent a theatrical touch to the sound and look of the series, with Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom” playing over the opening credits and racing scenes unfolding mere feet from the camera mounted on a tracking vehicle.
“We were able to get where you never can get,” Mann said. “We’re used to seeing animals sprint but they’re rabbits, they’re not 1,400 pounds. A really athletic horse with not much body fat moving that fast, you don’t really see things that can move that fast. That informed some of the shots.”
Milch’s script eschews the heroic story lines seen in recent movies such as “Secretariat” and “Seabiscuit” in favor of the sport’s insular side featuring the characters who populate the stable area and grandstands.
“We’re not sentimental,” Mann said.
Viewers may find themselves tripping over the language unique to racing, including terms such as “bug boy,” “Pick Six” and “chalk,” referring to the wagering favorite in a race.
Milch assumes the audience will catch on as the show unfolds.
“It’s an act of faith,” he said. “Your fundamental response is to stay true to the deepest nature and intention of the materials. That’s what we did.”
Mann said, “To this day I don’t think I know how to bet a Pick Six.”
The wager involves selecting the winning horses in six consecutive races, with the bet having to be placed before the start of the first race in the sequence. Payouts can be huge, and the wager is a central theme in the pilot episode.
Hoffman takes on his first recurring role on television as crime kingpin Chester “Ace” Bernstein, who is released from three years in federal prison as the series opens.
He’s met by his driver and bodyguard Gus Demitriou, played by Dennis Farina, who fronts as the owner of a $2 million horse that Bernstein just bought. It’s part of a mysterious revenge plot engineered by Bernstein.
Nolte plays Walter Smith, a veteran trainer turned owner with his own promising horse, who has a dark history and shadow of scandal behind it. Jill Hennessy, John Ortiz, Jason Gedrick, retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, and current rider Chantal Sutherland have recurring roles.
“I don’t get ensembles like this in regular movies,” Hoffman said.
The 74-year-old two-time Oscar winner relished the opportunity to take his character in so many different directions.
“I have not had this experience before,” Hoffman said. “You can’t get a shot at doing your best work in the studio system. They can get involved in kind of a quasi-creative way, but they buck heads with people they shouldn’t be bucking heads with.”
By BETH HARRIS