Deep into the fourth episode of HBO's new, horse-racing-themed dramatic series, Luck (premiering on Sunday at 10 p.m.), come three minutes of television so breathtakingly original, so counter to the conventional, triumphal sports movie crescendo, that they all but turn the entire genre inside out. A beautiful thoroughbred thunders toward the finish line, seemingly headed to victory, when abruptly the background music shifts from the customary hammering percussion to the weeping strings of British composer Max Richter's On the Nature of Daylight, a mournful piece that portends something far deeper than just victory and defeat.
Underneath the music we see a busted-up, hardboot trainer (played by Nick Nolte, above) fighting back tears, a wheelchair-bound railbird (Kevin Dunn) and a floundering jockeys' agent (Richard Kind) opening their eyes in wonder; far from the track a young jockey (Tom Payne) runs miles in a sweat suit to shed weight from a growing body and a wealthy ex-con (Dustin Hoffman) rides in the back of a limousine, silently plotting to right a thousand wrongs.
The cinematic racetrack is almost always a place where beautiful people do beautiful things beautifully (most recently in Seabiscuit and Secretariat), where all the mornings are dewy and sun-splashed and dreams come true at post time. There is usually just the faintest nod to the dark underbelly of the racing world when, in reality, the prevailing emotion at any racetrack on any day is desperation. Owners and trainers are desperate to win at any cost (and often nakedly duplicitous), jockeys are desperate to defeat their own bodies, bettors are desperate to cash in and the entire industry is desperate to survive, when its golden age was eight decades ago.
Luck creator David Milch (Deadwood), a longtime horse owner and horse player, does not sugarcoat this reality; he embraces it. Nolte's Walter Smith trusts no one as he tries to guide a fast 3-year-old colt to greatness. Kind's Joey Rathburn gives up every ounce of his dignity to find mounts for his B-list riders. John Ortiz, as trainer Turo Escalante, both needs and despises the owners who provide him with fast horseflesh. Payne, slender, frail and much too tall as apprentice jock Leon Micheaux, ominously notes that his brother weighs 160 pounds. Hoffman (with muscle Gus Demitriou, played by Dennis Farina) presides over the narrative with a coiled-spring intensity and arms-length menace.
Racing fans won't feel cheated out of any authenticity; in fact the language is often so esoteric that outsiders might occasionally get lost. Milch walks a tightrope between theatrical drama and racing drama, but it's compelling either way. And Luck never lets go of the darkness. As Dunn, channeling the voice that Milch wrote two decades ago for the memorable Det. Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue, says during a victory celebration with his fellow gamblers, "I suppose, in the long run, we all go broke."