Your next box set: Luck

David Milch and Michael Mann's prematurely cancelled horse-racing drama creates a richly detailed and convincing world

When Luck launched on HBO in 2011, expectations were high. After all, this horse-racing drama was written by David "Deadwood" Milch, directed by Michael Mann and starred Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. Nine episodes later, it was abruptly cancelled with only one episode of the second season filmed. The reason? A third horse had died on set. With animal rights activists incandescent, HBO had little choice.

Milch, who owns, runs, rides and bets on horses, was devastated. He talked of how impossible it would have been to film without using real horses, and of how that final death was a freak accident unrelated to filming or racing (the horse was returning to her stall when she became spooked, reared up and struck her head).

Most of all, he talked about his love of both horses and horse-racing, and his sorrow that people would think he cared little for the animals. "No racetrack has stricter protocols than [the ones] we imposed in our care of the horses," he told New York magazine. "If you spend your life caring for horses, it's not because you don't like horses. It's because you love horses."

On the surface, Luck is the story of mobster Chester "Ace" Bernstein, played by Hoffman. He's just out of jail and working a complicated long con on the men who put him there. Right from the start, audiences are thrust into a claustrophobic world with little concern for whether they understand what a claiming race is (when the horses running are for sale) or how a multiple forecast bet works (sorry, still can't help).

"What's the story with us?" a member of a trackside gambling syndicate asks their de facto leader, the pessimistic Marcus, as they count the spoils from an against-the-odds victory. " Well," he replies. "I suspect in the long run, the story is we all go broke."

Luck, driven by Milch's passion for and knowledge of his subject matter, is more complicated than that. Plotlines are fragmented, with Bernstein's story often seeming peripheral to the central racetrack action. Milch admitted his tale took a while to coalesce. Yet it grows in confidence over its nine episodes, marrying Mann's muscular direction with Milch's staccato rhythms to create a richly detailed, entirely convincing world.

The trainer Escalante, inscrutable in both word and deed in the first episode, is one of the most human and relatable characters by the last; you start to care, desperately, whether the haphazard trackside gambling crew will manage one more big win; and Bernstein is revealed not as a vengeance-driven gangster but as a complicated man who finds himself aging and increasingly adrift in world where he once knew all the rules.

Most of all, for all its interest in racing's chancers and charmers, Luck's heroes are the ones with four legs. Asked by his doctor: "Do you have someone you can talk to?" Marcus replies: "A horse." When Ace meets Claire, who works on a programme allowing prison inmates to care for retired thoroughbreds, she tells him: "I've seen people profoundly changed simply by being in proximity to horses." And in the first episode, we see the usually contained Ace tentatively reach out to touch the racehorse he has bought.

The final episode centres on the Western Derby and all those human hopes, dreams and desires that rest on its outcome. But we care more about the two rival horses, Pint of Plain and Gettin' Up Morning. Fittingly, when that episode ends, it is with a shot not of the main characters but of the eventual Derby winner magnificent in victory, relaxing in his stable.

• Luck is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 3 December


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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