David Milch: Trying His 'Luck' With Horse Racing



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Luck, the new HBO drama created by David Milch, is about the inside world of horse racing.  (HBO)
Luck, the new HBO drama created by David Milch, is about the inside world of horse racing. (HBO)

Veteran TV writer and producer David Milch grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. But a few times each year, Milch would accompany his father across the state to Saratoga Springs, where the two would bet on horse races.

"The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler ... but it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet," Milch tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me, and, therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off."

Milch's lifelong fascination with the races forms the basis for his new HBO series Luck, which examines the inside world of horse racing through the lives of thoroughbred breeders, owners, jockeys and gamblers who spend most of their lives at the track. Many of the characters, says Milch, came from his own recollections and his own struggles with a gambling addiction.

"Once you enter into that world, your chemistry changes, and your chemistry changes in the same ways it would if you became a drug addict," he says. "The paradox is, as all of this alternation is going on, you still have the opportunities and challenges of being a human being. That's the rest of the story: how to be a human being, and the fascination with how these people live their lives."

Milch has a history of creating groundbreaking television series. The first TV script he wrote, for Hill Street Blues, won an Emmy. He co-created NYPD Blue and was also the creator of the HBO series Deadwood, known for its colorful characters, intricate plot lines and distinctive dialogue. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's in New York today for an appearance on "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central. Our guest today, David Milch, has a history of creating groundbreaking television. The first TV script he wrote for "Hill Street Blues" won an Emmy. He co-created "NYPD Blue" and created the HBO series "Deadwood," known for its colorful characters, intricate plotlines and distinctive use of language that was both antiquated and profane. Milch has won four Primetime Emmys and a host of other awards.

Milch is the creator and executive producer of the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. In "Luck," Milch brings his gift for re-creating the language, visual details and the social relations that capture a particular culture to the world of horseracing.

Its central character, played by Dustin Hoffman, has emerged from prison, determined to own a championship racehorse and get even with old associates. But the episodes are richly populated with colorful characters from the track: trainers, owners, jockeys, agents and, of course, gamblers. I spoke to David Milch yesterday.

Well, David Milch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, this is a world that you know well. I mean, you've owned - and - you owned racehorses, and I know that you, as a kid, your dad owned horses, right, and was at the track.

DAVID MILCH: My dad owned a few horses, and my first exposure to the races began when I was five years old. My dad took me out to Saratoga, which is a couple of hundred miles from where we lived in Buffalo, New York, on the other side of the state.

But it was very much of a charged experience for me in that my dad's own feelings toward the racetrack were highly ambivalent and were communicated in all of their doubleness to me. The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler - which made me quite farsighted since I was five years old - but that it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet. On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me. And therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off.


DAVIES: Was he kidding? What did he mean when he called you a degenerate gambler?

MILCH: No, I think he was projecting. My dad himself was the son of the eldest of 10 children. His mother was the eldest of 10 children, and he grew up with uncles who were more or less his contemporaries, and they were - my uncles, my great-uncles, his uncles - pretty much all in the rackets.

My dad - because he was of the next generation, despite the fact that he was a contemporary of his uncles in many cases - was not allowed to go to the racetrack. He was - in fact, there's a story, which I have no reason to disbelieve, which was that no one was supposed to fraternize with my dad in a way that would lead him astray. And he was come upon once shooting pool on the second floor of the Williams Street Pool Ball in Buffalo, New York.

And my great-uncle, Hutch(ph), who was the guy who came upon him, picked up the guy who was shooting pool with him and threw him through the window and broke his neck, which I should think imposed it on my dad's consciousness as a sign of disapproval.


MILCH: In any case, his own feelings about gambling were very much mixed, and my brother, who was two years older than I, was raised to be a physician, as my dad was. But secretly, I think my dad nourished hopes for me in an area which had been denied him. And so he started sneaking me out to the racetrack and - with all of the complicated messagery(ph) that ensued.

DAVIES: So he was a successful physician, and he wasn't going to the track just to get you there, right? I mean, he liked to play the ponies.

MILCH: He liked to play the ponies himself, but only in the months of August, only at Saratoga and only with a compound of strict regulations, all of which he transferred to me in terms of recognition of the degeneracy of the enterprise and the disaster that it almost inevitably led to.

DAVIES: Right. And when you say a compound of strict regulations, you mean betting limits, that kind of thing?

MILCH: All kinds of limits of that sort, yeah, and - so that it was a very - it was a charged and mysterious environment.

DAVIES: I wondered if you can recall some of your earliest experiences at the track when you were a kid. What was it like?

MILCH: Oh, I remember the first ticket that I ever bought. I mentioned that I had commissioned - that I'd dispatched Max the waiter, and he bet $2 for me on a horse called North Quest. And I remembered that the horse paid $2.80. And when I returned with the ticket and I showed it to my dad, there was a mix of emotions in his features, which was - I guess scary would be the only way to describe it.

And he just turned away from me and said: Well, go get your dough. And I suppose, in a lot of ways, I've been trying to figure out what that means ever since.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about this HBO series "Luck." I mean, early in the series, you introduce us to some of the characters in the racing world. You know, it has its own ecology. There are owners and trainers and jockeys and agents, and four guys who are a band of gamblers in this series.

I thought we'd listen to a clip, here. This is the four guys, led by Marcus, who is in a wheelchair and sucks frequently from an oxygen mask. He's played by Kevin Dunn. And this is a clip of them talking about bets they're going to place on a horse. Two of the guys - Marcus and Jerry - seem to know quite a lot about it; the other two, not so much. Let's listen.


KEVIN DUNN: (As Marcus) So give me the seven, the 2-3-5-6-8, $10 try, seven with a 2-6 cold for 50, $200 daily double, 7-7. That's 500.

JASON GEDRICK: (As Jerry) Give me a $50 double wheel, 7-all; and the cold 7-2-6 try for 100. That's 800.

IAN HART: (As Lonnie) Uh - a brains housing mimic 500, plus pick-3, us with all-all - for 5 bucks.

RITCHIE COSTER: (As Renzo) That for me, too: 500, mimicking Marcus, and Lonnie's - your...

HART: (As Lonnie) That's $300.

DUNN: (As Marcus) Can we get to the window, please? Does it occur to you people that by mimicking my play, you reduce my perspective payout?

COSTER: (As Renzo) You know, I never thought of that.

DAVIES: And that's a scene from the new series "Luck," which premieres this Sunday, created by our guest David Milch. Tell us about these four guys. I mean, are they - do they come from people you knew at the track?

MILCH: Yeah, very much so, and they're called degenerates. And they find their - the rhythms and textures of their day in gambling and in associated behaviors, and mostly importantly, they regard themselves as outsiders to what would be the normal course of a regular guy's day.

DAVIES: Now, do they arrive...

MILCH: What they do is gamble.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, are they at the track all day? I mean, is it...

MILCH: Yeah, they're at the track all day, and they live in fleabag motels. And at night, they spend their time studying the racing form.

DAVIES: And can you make a living doing that, or do they have jobs and then disappear for gambling?

MILCH: You can make a living, although it's very unlikely. And this is a story of four guys who, through a fortunate set of circumstances, get lucky and win a jackpot of over several million dollars.

DAVIES: Right. Now, you observed guys like this. Were you ever at the point where you could spend all day at a track, or wanted to?

MILCH: Oh, hell yes, and have done for, dare I say, certainly months, and more honestly, years at a time.

DAVIES: Can you explain its draw? I mean, like, what happens if you go away?

MILCH: It's an alternate reality, and the - if you'll recall the circumstances under which I first came to experience a racetrack, that was a kind of concentrated and elaborately mixed set of messages that I was receiving about what - theoretically, what I was compelled to do because of my nature and how I was going to spend my time.

And I must say that once one enters into that world, there is - your chemistry changes in the same way chemistry changes when you become a drug addict. And your - the reward systems are very different.

And the paradox is that as all of this alteration is going on, you still have the opportunities and challenges of being a human being. That's the rest of the story: how to be a human being and, really, the fascination with how these people conduct their lives is what engaged my imagination.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Milch. He created the series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Milch. He created the series "Deadwood." He also created the series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO.

Let's talk about another character, here. Joey Rathburn, he is an agent who represents jockeys. He's played by Richard Kind. And we're going to hear a scene here where he's gotten one of his young, apprentice jockeys to - a chance to ride a horse for the legendary trainer Turo Escalante, who is at the track. And he screwed up by talking too much about how good the horse was. Escalante complained to the agent, Joey, that this kid was talking too much about that, how fast the horse would run, which might undermine some of Escalante's plans.

So the scene we hear here is where we see the agent, Joey, encountering this young jockey, who's played by Tom Payne. Let's listen.


TOM PAYNE: (as Leon Micheaux) Hey, Joey. I met Mr. Escalante at his barn.

RICHARD KIND: (as Joey Rathburn) Oh, yeah? How'd that go?

PAYNE: (as Leon) Good. You know, he's foreign. He's a little hard to understand.

KIND: (as Joey) Yeah, well, you did some job.

PAYNE: (as Leon) I did?

KIND: (as Joey) Yeah, pissing him off with your wise-ass chirping about how good you thought this horse was going to run today.

PAYNE: (as Leon) Well, I was just saying something to say something.

KIND: (as Joey) That's what how-is-the-weather's for.

PAYNE: (as Leon) He's a great trainer. I wanted to have something to say.

KIND: (as Joey) Suppose he's making a bet. You think he wants some big-mouth riding his horse?

PAYNE: (as Leon) He betting, Mr. Escalante?

KIND: (as Joey) I don't know, and if you want to know, I don't want to represent you. You're a bug. You bite everything hard, and you don't chirp about what ain't your business.

DAVIES: And that is Richard Kind and Tom Payne in the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO, created by our guest, David Milch. What a great character, Joey Rathburn. Is that - that stutter, is that something you heard at the track?

MILCH: I was a stammerer when I was a kid, and my name was Dudi(ph), because I couldn't say David.


MILCH: But no, I didn't know anyone literally who was a stammerer. But the difficulty of communication, I think, thematically is what conjoins those two scenes that you've represented: the mysteries of language and what is or isn't meant to be understood. And that's part of the fascination and, obviously, the compelling mystery of that world.

DAVIES: Right. The agent calls the jockey a bug. What does he mean?

MILCH: A bug is an apprentice jockey. An apprentice jockey is a jockey who has just begun to ride. And the way that in the racing form, which is the publication which shows the entries every day, the way that - when a horse is being ridden by an apprentice jockey, there is an asterisk next to the apprentice jockey's name, and that asterisk looks like a bug on the page. So that's where the nickname comes from.

DAVIES: Tell us about jockeys. I mean, they're a unique breed, right? They lead a tough life. Yeah.

MILCH: They sure are. They're great, great athletes and ferocious competitors and disciplined by the - weight is a compelling and everyday fixation. If a jockey weighs too much, that's going to be reflected in his horse's performance. And so, typically, jockeys are always dieting and more in order to keep their weight down.

They - again, addiction, speed, every kind of way of keeping weight off is used, and - in addition to which, of course, they're in the sweat box all the time. And it's an awfully, awfully tough way to make a terrifically good living.

DAVIES: When you were a kid, did you know jockeys?

MILCH: Oh, sure, sure, very well. And, in fact, I used to get smuggled into the track. There was a trainer named Slim Sully(ph) who used to help me get into the track when I wasn't there with my dad, and he introduced me as a Russian exercise boy.


DAVIES: You needed somebody to sneak you in, why, because you were underage and you couldn't go without your dad?

MILCH: Oh, I was - well, from the time I started sneaking out to the track outside Buffalo, I'd go hitchhike across the border into Canada, where the races were. And from the time I was seven or eight years old, I was going to the track on my own.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, I also read that you would go to your basement and put on one of your dad's fedoras, light up one of his Hav-a-Tampa cigars and read racing forms. True?

MILCH: Yeah. And they were expired racing forms, just to add to the futility of the moment.


DAVIES: So what was going on there?

MILCH: I was imitating my father, and the mixture of admiration and awe and fear, all of those elements cohabit, I think, in the portrayal of all of the characters, but especially the character of Dustin Hoffman in the show.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did you get caught sneaking out to the track?

MILCH: Oh, sure. I'd get whacked around a little bit on occasion. But it was also a source of great pride to my dad that I was doing it. Even as he was speaking one way, you could see in his eyes something else, and don't forget he loved the track himself.

Even as he was rebuking me, you know, he was the doc, and he was taking care of - you know, we used to have - I was just thinking about this. Did you ever hear of the Appalachian - there was a series of arrests that were made - there was a gangland meeting in Upstate New York in the mid-'50s, and there were hearings held in the aftermath by the Kefauver Committee.

And my dad would give operations to these mobsters who didn't want to have to testify. He would give them hernia operations so they wouldn't have to testify at the hearings.


MILCH: And I would hang around with them in the basement in the aftermath, and that - you see the sort of doubleness in the atmosphere, in the domestic atmosphere, where it was regarded with both misgiving and a kind of admiration.

DAVIES: David Milch is creator and executive producer of the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's another clip from "Luck," from the second episode. Chester "Ace" Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, has just gotten out of prison and has his eyes on a racetrack he wants to take over to expand his gambling business.

But since he's convicted felon, he can't be the owner of record, so he set up a meeting with associates of a former business partner, to explain how the deal would work.


DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Shall we start? The U.S. economy's in the (beep) toilet. The New York bankers, with their three-card-Monty bond swaps have brought the whole (beep) walls down, tremendous structural damage, the tax base, unemployment, plus - my impression - tremendous, tremendous compression of the leisure gaming dollar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) One hundred percent accurate.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Well, then why look to buy a racetrack with all the added arguments against - the churn is slow, the unexploited square footage, the stables, the racing surface, the grassy grounds and the flowers? Because, in California, established and passed by the legislature, horseracing is legal, and casino gaming isn't - leaving aside for a second the (beep) rain-dancers. And, like the whole state economy, the track is desperate for new streams of revenue: the perfect Trojan horse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) To bring in slots and table games.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") I put up the money. Your name's on the signs. Your end's 10 points, plus you've got a 12-month option up to 39 more - my purchase price, plus my costs.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This isn't just some (beep) cost. It's a full-court press in Sacramento.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") The last I understood, option means your choice, 12 months stands for a year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Here comes the famous Bernstein temper.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") What you get for your 10 points, if you decide to nix the option, you get for us being friends.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And for our name on the signs.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Because I'm a (beep) felon. Anything else you want to explain to me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is David Milch, who co-created the TV series "NYPD Blue" and created the HBO series "Deadwood." Milch's a new project is the series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. Milch is the show's creator and executive producer. It's set in the world of horseracing, and is filled with colorful characters from the track.

Let's talk about the Dustin Hoffman character, who's at the center of the story...

MILCH: Sure.

DAVIES: ...name is Chester Bernstein, known as Ace, who, as the series opens, has just finished a three-year prison term - taken a fall to protect some other guys who we learn more about as the series progresses. And this is a scene when he's sitting around with his driver and good friend Gus, who's played by Dennis Farina. Ace has had Gus buy a racehorse, a $2 million racehorse. Gus had to hold (technical difficulties) because Ace, as a felon, is barred from owning a horse. Here, they're back in a hotel room at the end of the day, and Gus has just returned from finally seeing the horse and is speaking with the trainer, Escalante, who's going to be working with him. Let's listen.


HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") So, how did it go?

DENNIS FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Good. The horse moved his bowels. I took that as a positive. When he landed, he was all bound up.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") But generally, how'd he look?

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) What do I know, Ace? All four of his legs reached the ground.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Escalante was satisfied?

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Yeah, he was satisfied. He was grinning, pinching his cheek.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Those screws at Victorville, they could buy Cadillacs what I pay to let his race tapes through the mailroom. That horse is all heart. He gets by you, forget about going by him.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Roosters and birds, Ace, and goats. You'd take yourself for being on a farm out there.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Oh, I know.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) I'm saying, beside the horses.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Oh, beside them.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Yeah. I saw a goat out there, had nuts the size of pumpkins.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") I hope to Christ he was bowlegged.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) He was bowlegged. How the hell did you know that?

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") How else would he walk around? Escalante?

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Desi Arnaz.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Some (bleep) trainer. I followed him 25 years, watching him climb up the ladder from nothing.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) That regard, he reminds me of you.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") 7:45, I'm falling asleep, here.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) You had a full day.

DAVIES: And that's Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman, reading dialogue written by our guest David Milch, the creator of the new series "Luck," which is set at the race track and premieres Sunday on HBO.

Now, Ace, in addition to being a horse owner, is a tough guy, but, I mean, it seems a guy who uses financial leverage rather than muscle in the main. I mean, is he a mob guy? Is he a businessman, or businesslike mob guy?

MILCH: Keep going.


MILCH: A businesslike mob guy sounds right to me. What distinguishes Bernstein from the men among whom he customarily moves is his willingness, in fact, his interest in re-engaging with animals. And he doesn't himself quite understand it, but it becomes the instrument for him of a life change, to the extent that he's a protagonist, the change one hopes occurs in the audience, as well.

DAVIES: I've always wondered how much of the appeal of racing is, you know, seeing these magnificent creatures, the horses, and how much of it is gambling. I mean, is a horse that wins races really more beautiful than the one that finishes eighth?

MILCH: They tend to be.


MILCH: But, in fact, what you're - you have your finger on something which is of crucial thematic importance: the alienation of spirit that occurs in the woundings - what we can call the particulars of the upbringing of these characters - receives an opportunity to be ameliorated, to be improved by their exposure to these animals. And it's a mystery to them, but it's also a blessing and, in the deepest sense, it's their luck.

DAVIES: Now, Ace is an interesting character. In what ways is Ace like your dad?

MILCH: Well, he - a very strict guy, and very much given to routine. There are paradoxes in Bernstein that were shared with my dad of enormous capacity for kindness and, simultaneously, a tremendous distance.

DAVIES: Did you talk with Dustin Hoffman about your father?

MILCH: Not too much. You know, it's a little bit like telling the Mississippi how to run.


MILCH: He brings - Dustin is as pure an athlete as I've ever encountered, and he works from the outside in in certain key ways, and I didn't want to interfere with any of that process.

DAVIES: There was a fascinating profile of you in The New Yorker a few years back. And one of the things that struck me was a description of your writing process. I guess this was when you were working on "Deadwood." And the story was you would lie on a floor on your back dictating your thoughts, while someone transcribed them. There were a couple of other writers in the room and even a couple of interns. And the result was this long stream of your thoughts from which terrific scripts would eventually emerge. Do you still do that?

MILCH: Yeah, that's, for better or worse, that's the way I do it. The lying on the back is, I suppose, the least idiosyncratic of the elements.


MILCH: But I just have a bad back. And I was fortunate enough when I was in college to be taught by Robert Penn Warren, who made a tremendous difference in my life and certainly in my writing. And that's why I try to have other writers, and especially interns, in the room all the time, so that - to make that process accessible to them. And frankly, the rest of it doesn't sound that strange to me.


DAVIES: OK. And you won't sit at a computer, because just the process speaking...

MILCH: The same thing that happens with the corruption of the symbol, I feel like the voice is like the horse. Now I know that sounds ridiculous, but what I mean is that, to the extent that I type stuff and rewrite it, I am mechanizing a process which ought to be somatic. And so I try to minimize as much as - I watch the words come up on the screen, and then I suggest a change, but I try not to use my hands in the process.

DAVIES: So when you're editing a script that's a draft of a script, same thing. You prefer to...

MILCH: Yeah. I dictate it.

DAVIES: You dictate it.

MILCH: Yeah.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm. The dialogue in the series "Deadwood" was so distinctive. I mean, it's profane and, you know, kind of antiquated, almost Shakespearean, and people commented on that a lot. Do you want to talk a little about finding the language and the voice for this series, the voice of the track?

MILCH: Yeah. The - so much of language for me consists of what is evasive and circumlocuitous(ph). And to the extent that the numbers - you used, for example, at the very beginning of the show, a segment where - that consisted really of give me the four, the six, the six, four, three, the six, four - in other words, whatever emotional process had gone into that character's selecting those numbers is obfuscated. So it provides a different challenge for the writer, because that process of ellipses and circumlocution has already been neutralized by the fact that the character's going to choose to use a number rather than words. So it was left, in some measure, to the camera to accomplish in "Luck" what I had tried to accomplish verbally, for the most part, in "Deadwood."

DAVIES: Well, David Milch, it's been great to have you back. Thanks so much.

MILCH: Thank you, sir.

DAVIES: David Milch is creator and executive producer of the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO.

Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a collection of the work of the band The Smiths. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.