Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Luck

Hollywood Beckons

Santa Anita meet’s closed on Sunday and its numbers don’t tell a happy story*. David Milch’s racetrack drama probably won’t either, but the “Luck” preview released by HBO on Monday generates a good kind of excitement:

As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Milch.

The horses used in filming “Luck” were some of the first to test the restored dirt track at Santa Anita last December, the same surface on which 19 horses were fatally injured during the meet. With an additional fatality on the training track and six on the turf course, the total number of fatalities came to 26 (as estimated here). Santa Anita is funding a safety study: “We hope that data will be important to us and something that we can apply.” That is to be hoped! It was a real pleasure to watch Santa Anita for three years and rarely worry about seeing a horse go down. After this meet, I can’t say that — and I’m not alone.

How’s this for ugly? Fatality numbers were almost all that was up at Santa Anita. While attendance held steady, handle declined. The track announced a 9% decrease in average daily handle, but the raw CHRIMS data, available through CalRacing, showed a 20.7% decline in gross handle over the previous year, from $589 million (PDF) to $467 million (PDF). Adjusting for eight fewer days, and a decline of 9.7% in the number of races carded, the Blood-Horse found average daily handle was down 11.6%. Pull the Pocket has an interesting theory on why Blood-Horse, which originally reported the 9% decline straight, revisited the handle numbers so thoroughly and quickly.

As long as I’m linking bad news, here’s more: The national HBPA officially opposes the proposed RCI ban on raceday medications. Apparently, a five-year phase-out isn’t long enough. “Blah. Blah. Blah,” says Ray Paulick. Exactly.

*Not a happy story, unless you’re a horseman or owner, in which case, hooray! Total purses were up 5.1% for the Santa Anita meet.

Working Around

Production is set to begin October 31 at Santa Anita on “Luck,” complicated by the racetrack surface renovation underway:

All of the changes have forced HBO to break up filming of their episodes and have caused problems in booking certain guest cast members and in working with the series’ directors, Bronchtein said.

In addition, the crew has less days to shoot the early episodes and fewer days to prepare for upcoming ones.

“That just adds pressure to the process,” he said. “It’s really forced us to work extra hard and to be at the top of our game.”

The new track surface is expected to be ready by early December, which is when “Luck” plans to stage races for filming. That’s one way to test the dirt …

How has this tidbit not come up before? Bill Barich, author of “Laughing in the Hills” and “A Fine Place to Daydream,” is part of the writing crew on “Luck” and on the scene at Santa Anita. The handicapper-writer, who had been living in Dublin, told the Irish Times, “If all goes well … this gig, as opposed to my books, may keep me out of the Trail’s End trailer park in Santa Rosa.”

Anticipating “Luck”

Michael Mann talks about “Luck” with the Los Angeles Times:

“To make these characters be alive, you have a sense of them intuitively and viscerally,” Mann said. “The challenge of it is obvious, but the economy of it is wonderful — if you can make it work.”

Making “the economy” work has been the director’s career. Khoi Vinh:

What’s left out from these movies is as important and beautiful as what’s included. They’re exercises in doing as much as possible with as little as possible, implying whole swaths of narrative information by allowing the audience to extrapolate events, details, backstories and subplots from only the barest hints of their presence…. Mann employs an architectural approach that establishes a plot framework but declines to fill every nook and cranny. He uses very few elements to suggest many more, and in so doing constructs a kind of environment that the audience experiences rather than a narrative account that the audience observes.

Or, as Mann tells his interviewer, discussing audience perceptions:

“It’s liberating to jump into the stream of a story and jump into the stream of a character and convey by attitude, ambience and the tone of that person — and their surroundings and how they’re reacting to those surroundings — the magic of what’s happening. When you can bring the audience into understanding and they have leapt over that little gap, and they’re getting it on their own, it’s a much more intense involvement.”

There is nothing about this show that isn’t coming together.

Reasons to Be Happy

Bill Finley has nine, including Ellis Park, sales results, the likely Breeders’ Cup Classic field, and “Luck.” Two questions, though, regarding the latter:

Can such a thing create new racing fans? That’s debatable, but how cool will it be to have a hot TV show on HBO that is about the racetrack and racetrack characters?

For sure it’ll create a few new fans. “Seabiscuit” is still bringing people to the track, and David Milch’s “Deadwood” did wonders for Deadwood at its peak. But what will tracks do for the curious “Luck”-inspired visitors that will keep them coming back? That’ll be the question in 2011 …

Weekend Notes

Buzz builds for “Luck.” A producer claims, “it will be the greatest show on TV.” TV critic Alan Sepinwall (who writes some of the best “Mad Men” recaps out there) is excited — and worried — about the HBO drama, noting that it “may have the most prominent creative firepower, in front of and behind the camera, of any show in the channel’s history,” but what about Dustin Hoffman? Entertainment Weekly tabs the Oscar winner’s presence as a “breakthrough” for TV, while Santa Anita reveals what Variety didn’t, that the first season will consist of the pilot and “seven to nine additional weekly episodes.”

Sure, bring the kids for a day at the races. But don’t let them bet at Saratoga. (A trespass charge and an anti-gambling class? Oh, come on.)

Wow. Monmouth Park reports incredible results for the first 24 days of the “elite summer meet,” with attendance up 13% over comparable days in 2009, on-track handle up 43%, and total handle up an amazing 118%. The average field size is also up over last year, to 9.0, compared to 7.44 in 2009. Monmouth doesn’t mention claiming activity in its press release, but that must also be up by a huge amount, with 215+ claims so far. At the start of the Monmouth “less-is-more” experiment, Steven Crist wrote, “Gov. Chris Christie has said his goal is to make the racing industry ‘entirely self-sustaining.’ Unless handle increases from last year’s $3.1 million a day to $10 million, that isn’t going to happen.” That hasn’t happened, but with average daily handle of $7.6 million, Monmouth is still in a very good spot. [7/19/10 Addition: Business of Racing digs into Monmouth claiming activity vis-a-vis Belmont.]

By Ragozin figures, Blind Luck tops 3-year-olds of either sex.

After the Massachusetts state senate approved a casino bill 25-15 earlier this month, expanded gaming looked almost certain. There were just a few differences with the house bill to reconcile in committee, and a tight deadline for getting legislation to the governor. Difficult, but not impossible. Now, State House News Service reports, “… serious people are talking in somber tones about a two-week stare-down that yields nothing in the way of major legislation. The unimaginable — failure to sanction casinos despite Big 3 ardor and at least $1.8 million spent on lobbying during the first six months of the year — looms.” It’ll be a tense watch for slots supporters …

Yes, a gentleman!” I never tire of the General Quarters story.

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