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Dustin Hoffman Bets Ponies, Settles Score in ‘Luck’: Greg Evans

Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman in "Luck." The show airs Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Photographer: Gusmano Cesaretti/HBO via Bloomberg

Bug boys and railbirds should have no trouble keeping pace with the racetrack lingo that comes fast as horses on David Milch’s eccentric, often exciting “Luck.”

The rest of us need to hang on tight. Watching HBO’s latest prestige drama series can feel like being plopped onto a thoroughbred at full run.

Created by Milch (with a gorgeous, style-setting pilot directed by Michael Mann), “Luck” is loaded with the teasing, tension-filled plots and weirdly convoluted dialogue that’s marked every Milch program since “N.Y.P.D. Blue.”

And if “Luck” is not as addictive as “Deadwood,” it’s a high jump over the too-quirky pleasures of Milch’s “John From Cincinnati.”

Dustin Hoffman, in his first starring role on a TV series, heads an exceptional (and large) cast that includes Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen and Jason Gedrick, for starters.

Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a wealthy businessman just released from prison. He has elaborate, big-money plans to take over a Santa Anita racetrack and add casino gambling to the mix. If he can get revenge on the nefarious partner who sent him up the river, all the better.

Bug Boy

The show’s railbirds (or horse enthusiasts, per an HBO glossary) include Ace’s trusted bodyguard (Farina); a wary love interest (Allen); the track veterinarian (Jill Hennessey); a Peruvian trainer with dubious ethics (John Ortiz); and the novice jockey (“bug boy”) starving himself to make weight (Tom Payne).

Peering from the cheap seats are Jerry (Gedrick), an odds-figuring genius with a poker addiction; Marcus (Kevin Dunn), a wheezing, foul-tempered paraplegic; and Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and Lonnie (Ian Hart), good-natured mugs devoted to the trouble-prone Jerry.

Finally, there’s Walter Smith (Nolte), the muttering horse owner haunted by a long-ago scandal.

“They murdered your daddy,” Smith horse-whispers to his pony, Nolte’s growl of a voice all but demanding subtitles.

“Luck” sketches these high-flyers and lowlifes with detail and, in unexpected moments, compassion. Even the wheelchair-bound Marcus has a heart as big as his temper.

“Luck” doesn’t come easy. Backstories are parceled out too slowly, and the show seems awfully enamored of its own stylistic bravura. Milch and his cast are as close to a sure bet as TV gets, but they take their time paying off.

“Luck” airs Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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