Dustin Hoffmans starring in horseracing TV drama Luck

Dustin's in luck: For his first ever TV role, Hoffman’s gone for horseracing drama Luck, created by the man behind NYPD Blue. No wonder it’s tipped to be a winner…

First TV role: Dustin Hoffman stars in Sky Atlantic's Luck

First TV role: Dustin Hoffman stars in Sky Atlantic's Luck

The smart money says new horseracing drama Luck will be a runaway success here.

The nine-part series detailing the lives of the characters at a Californian racetrack, from the trainers and jockeys to the owners, stable hands and punters, airs on Sky Atlantic this week, featuring not only Dustin Hoffman in his first ever TV series, but also Nick Nolte and our own Michael Gambon.

Created by David Milch, who gave us hit series Deadwood and NYPD Blue, Luck has been lauded in the States, where it launched recently on the HBO channel.

As a racehorse owner and self-confessed gambler, Milch is perfectly placed to convey both the beauty and degeneracy of the track.

‘This series has been 40 years in the making,’ says the 66-year-old. ‘Because this world is one of my passions, it frightened me to do it. I worked on it for five years when I was 25, then gave up and came back to it four years ago. There were so many elements that I wanted to do them justice.’

Two-time Oscar-winner Hoffman, 74, plays Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein, a shady racehorse owner with underworld connections, who begins the series preparing for his release after three years in prison, having taken the fall for someone else.

He’s picked up by his driver and confidant Gus (Get Shorty’s Dennis Farina), who takes him to the famous Santa Anita Park racecourse, where he sets about reclaiming his high standing among the mobsters.

As a racehorse owner and self-confessed gambler, NYPD Blue writer David Milch is perfectly placed to convey both the beauty and degeneracy of the track

As a racehorse owner and self-confessed gambler, NYPD Blue writer David Milch is perfectly placed to convey both the beauty and degeneracy of the track

WHO'S IN LUCK

Michael Smythe (Michael Gambon)

Michael Gambon

The wealthy English businessman and one-time partner of Ace Bernstein, he was responsible for putting Ace in prison. Fears, correctly, that Ace wants to exact vengeance.

Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina)

Dennis Farina

Ace’s trusted driver and confidant, who assumes extra responsibilities after his boss’s release from prison by acting as the front for Ace’s ownership of a new Irish racehorse, Pint of Plain.

Walter Smith (Nick Nolte)

Nick Nolte

Otherwise known as ‘the Old Man’, trainer/owner Smith has an incredible gift with horses and is carrying a few secrets from his past about a previous racing scandal.

Chester ‘Ace’ Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman)

First TV role: Dustin Hoffman stars in Sky Atlantic's Luck

Ace is out to settle old scores and regain his place in the world of organised crime when he heads back to the Santa Anita racetrack after three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Once there we meet a dizzying array of
characters, including world-weary trainer Walter Smith (Nolte), a
stammering agent called Joey Rathburn and a group of four inveterate
gamblers who end up winning millions. There’s also rising British star
Tom Payne (Waterloo Road) and Irish actress Kerry Condon (Rome) who play
apprentice jockeys. Their intertwining stories form the basis of the
series.

‘Ace struggles to live within his own moral framework as best he can,’ says Hoffman, ‘but throughout his life he’s lived on the edge.’ That fact is made clear when, later in the series, he meets his former business partner Michael Smythe, played by a chilling Gambon, 71, a character Milch describes as ‘an evil man you’ll love to watch’.

But as well as the hints of Soprano-esque mob violence, there are moments of great poignancy. The racing scenes are beautifully shot – Michael Mann, who directed Heat and Collateral, made the pilot episode – and it’s hard not to feel sympathy when Nolte’s old-time trainer shuffles onto the screen.

‘Walter’s a good guy, a crafty old trainer with a lot of stories to tell,’ says the husky-voiced Nolte, 70, whose last TV role was 30 years ago in Rich Man, Poor Man, ‘but he doesn’t talk about his past. Lots of things have gone on that he just keeps rolling over in his mind.’

Milch says the show come

s from deeply personal material. ‘My dad snuck me out to the racetrack when I was just five. He told me, “I know you’re a degenerate little gambler, so here you are.” He had the waiter run bets for me and then, when we got home, he beat me for gambling. If that isn’t a mixed message, I don’t know what is.’ While Hoffman says playing Ace is his ‘best work’, Milch admits that in TV, just as on the racetrack, there’s no foolproof system for success.

‘Writing this has occupied my imagination for so long,’ he says. ‘I’ll be devastated if it doesn’t do well.’ But with news that Luck has been commissioned for a second season, it looks like Milch has backed a sure-fire winner.

Luck, tonight, Sky Atlantic, 9pm