Q&A: David Milch on horse racing and iconic TV series

Writer-producer David Milch has captured the attention of America with his crime dramas “Hill Street Blues,” and “NYPD Blue,” and he brought an uncensored version of the Old West to HBO’s “Deadwood” too.

The difference in Milch’s coming HBO series, “Luck,” is that while he researched his former projects, he has lived through the experiences of being both a degenerate horse player and an occupant in a thoroughbred owner’s box.

He has owned two Breeders’ Cup winners — 2001 Mile champion Val Royal and 1992 Juvenile winner Gilded Time — and remains involved in the sport that requires a $40,000 annual investment to effectively maintain each animal. Milch said, “I’ve got a couple now I have hopes for.” When asked how many, he transformed to a coy gambler: “It depends who I’m lying to.”

Starting Jan. 29, his hopes are hooked to “Luck,” as it starts a nine-episode run on HBO. With racing and other scenes filmed at Santa Anita, which opens its winter meet Monday in Arcadia, the series stars Dustin Hoffman as a player out to exact payback from a prison sentence and Nick Nolte as a trainer, with horsemen, gamblers and women further coloring the story.


Is “Luck” your opus to horse racing?

“I hope it’s a love letter. By saying that, I’m not saying it’s a story coming through rose-colored glasses. To me, the track is what the river was to Mark Twain. Where you see the most life and interesting people, go there. That’s what I’ve done.”

Why did you choose Santa Anita as the backdrop?

“It’s the most beautiful setting for horse racing that I’ve seen, and I’d include Saratoga. I’ve been thinking about doing a show like this for 25 years, and it never occurred for me to do it anywhere but Santa Anita.”


You have been described as having more than a passing interest in the ponies. What is the depth of this interest?

“My dad started taking me to Saratoga at age 5 or 6. You have so many associations from childhood that stay with you. How a kid idolizes his dad is all tied up in this. My dad used to call me a degenerate gambler. You hear that, and you spend time trying to live up to those ideas. Then, the animals are so heart-stopping beautiful, the competition can lead to such joy and heartache. You get to see that play out every day at the track. You can’t ask for anything more.”

Have you been a degenerate?

“It depends what decade you want to concentrate on. There were times; if I wasn’t home by 6 p.m. … it has not been an uneventful journey. I would say gambling became a problem for me. It distorts relationships, the way you want to live. If you don’t realize when it has you in its grip, shame on you. One of the great things about this is to reencounter these situations — and some are ripped from the headlines, as they say — and add this imagination to it. It can be quite uplifting for the viewer to see these stories play out.”

Beyond the crime dramas, the gold rush and your newest project to take on author William Faulkner’s works, what convinces you horse racing will be compelling to the audience?

“I lived it. Faulkner said the stories of human heart in conflict with itself are the stories worth telling. When you see people’s lives — all of someone’s dreams — determined one way or another by one race or the performance of a horse, that’s the stuff of great drama.”

You based some of the “Luck” characters on your friends, like your trainer, Julio Canani?

“I have to make sure they’re still willing to talk to me. I’m trying to be both honest and loving.”


The cast is strong, experienced. Can you predict how “Luck” will fare?

“You never know the answer to that question, but I’m certainly grateful for the actors associated with the project. I’ve spent seven days a week for the last three years on it. I’m proud of the scripts. I know it’s up to the public. I hope they can take it to heart like they did ‘Hill Street’ and ‘NYPD Blue.’ You hope. But I know everyone involved in this has given it their best shot.”

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