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Volume 20 No. 42
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HBO horse racing show ‘Luck’ a true labor of love for Milch

David Milch’s résumé is lined with connections to big-name television shows: a writer on “Hill Street Blues,” a co-creator of “NYPD Blue” and the creator of “Deadwood.” But as co-creator with Michael Mann of “Luck,” Milch is living his dream of writing about the sport he has loved since he was a child — horse racing. Milch talked to staff writer Liz Mullen about the sport and the show. The nine-episode first season had its premiere last night on HBO.

What does the sport of horse racing offer in terms of storytelling and film production?

Milch (left), with stars Dustin Hoffman (right) and Nick Nolte, sees the track as a great stage.
MILCH: It’s the human drama on the grand scale and the opportunity to explore deep emotions in a dramatic setting. I have never seen a better opportunity for storytelling. And, for me, I have experienced the highs and lows of the game. I have owned the winners of two Breeders’ Cups. But I have also experienced such deep disappointment and I wouldn’t trade either for the other. It’s the whole package. And I am humbled by the chance to tell the story to a larger audience.

Do you think horse racing, more than any other sport, lends itself to storytelling? What about NFL football?

MILCH: To me it does. Man’s relationship with an animal is something that complicates horse racing in a way that, for example, NFL football is not complicated. Football is a beautiful exploration of human possibility, but what is added in horse racing is all of the nuance of relating to a different species and trying to understand and bring out the best.

Is it true that the character in “Luck,” Turo Escalante, is based on real-life horse trainer Julio Canani? Was he your trainer? How does he feel about it?

MILCH: Yes. And I think Julio feels pretty good about it. Julio is the trainer I won a Breeders’ Cup [race] with, a horse called Val Royal in 2001.

Are any of the other characters in the show based on real-life people?

MILCH: Not so completely as Escalante is based on Julio. There are a lot of characters who are composites of horsemen that I have known. Nick Nolte’s character mixes in some of [horse trainers] Jack Van Berg, some of Ron McAnally. But Escalante is purely Canani.

Do you think this show is going to help or hurt the sport?

MILCH: If it doesn’t help the sport I am going to be heartbroken. I try to tell the truth about things, and there are some heartbreaking moments in horse racing. But I also try to be very respectful and also to illuminate what is uplifting about it. I think that anyone who stays with the show for more than a few episodes, I hope, will feel the love I have for it.

Some people in the horse industry are very upset. For example, in the very first episode, you have a horse that breaks a foreleg and is put down. I know you have friends at Santa Anita. Have you heard from them?

MILCH: Yeah, I’ve heard some disapproval, but it is part of the story. It’s part of the game. That horse going down, in a way, is what makes it possible for these guys to win their Pick Six. And the highs and lows sort of mixed in together was what I was trying to show. I certainly wasn’t trying to sensationalize it or glory in it or trivialize it in any way.

What does Santa Anita provide in terms of visuals from a filmmaker’s point of view?

MILCH: It’s such a beautiful, beautiful place. Hollywood [Park racetrack] has its own appeal, but I think visually that Santa Anita is unparalleled.

If you would do a series or a film around another sport, what would it be?

MILCH: I would never do another sport. It’s the game I have spent an awful lot of time coming to understand, and for better or worse, it’s the one I want to write about.

When will you know it’s a success?

MILCH: Well, they’ve picked it up already. So, that is a good thing.

Why did they pick it up?

MILCH: Well, I think they were optimistic about it and they also want to get a head start on the production. Now I suppose something terrible could happen in the next week or 10 days and they could reverse themselves, but I know I’ve written three scripts for the next year.