When I was in college, I attended a sports journalism conference at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, where Dick Schaap, the late dean of New York sportswriters who at the time was most famous for hosting ESPN’s Sports Reporters, was one of the featured speakers. To the discomfort of our hosts but the delight of the aspiring writers, Schaap proceded to spin anecdote after anecdote about the seedy underbelly of the horse business. To him, the track had, as he put it, an alluring “scent of larceny” about it. What a great phrase. If a screenwriter had scribbled down just a fraction of Schaap’s musings, he’d have had enough material for multiple seasons of an entire television show.
I don’t recall David Milch sitting in the audience with me, but his new HBO series, Luck (video below) certainly captures the mood and characters that Schaap so vividly described. “The racetrack is a place of incomparable beauty, but it’s a rough racket,” says exec producer Milch, the voice behind HBO’s Deadwood. “As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Nick Nolte looks like he was plucked from the paddock to play a weathered trainer who gets a second chance, and Dustin Hoffman is intense as a powerful organized crime figure named Ace. “It’s immersion into a total world, not just of horse racing, but of luck, combined with skill that can have the power to change our lives,” says exec prodcuer Michael Mann, who directs the pilot. “This is everything from degenerate gamblers to disreputable trainers to [Hoffman’s character] Ace Bernstein.”
I’d struggle to come up with a better match of filmmaking talent and subject matter, and I am greatly looking forward to post-time, when Luck finally airs. (It’s set to premiere next year.) In fact, my only complaint is with the vague title: Luck. Is it too late to change it to The Scent of Larceny?