Horse racing makes for easy drama. It's an intense two-minute burst of energy with big money at stake and the risk of death hanging over every race. David Milch, the creator of Deadwood and co-creator of NYPD Blue, could easily milk those two minutes for all they're worth in his new HBO drama series, Luck; instead, Luck is less about the races than it is the wide cross-section of dissolute characters that mill about Santa Anita Park. The races are merely punctuation and emphasis for Milch's dramatic arcs, similar to how a real day at the track is just a backdrop for drinking.

Much of Luck's advance hype has revolved around the ridiculous talent involved. Milch is one of the best writers in the industry, and, here, he's aligned with Hollywood big shot Michael Mann (director of such films as Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies), who's on board as a producer and directed last night's pilot episode. Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Dennis Farina headline the cast, and Michael Gambon pops up down the road to fill out an amazing collection of grizzled acting vets who will no doubt grumble and growl at each other over tumblers of top-shelf booze. Stacy Keach's Bored to Death character would be right at home.

"I don't trust anyone, not even myself."

The first episode opens with Hoffman getting out of prison. At first, it seems as if he's playing a grown-up version of Midnight Cowboy's "Ratso" Rizzo, but it's quickly obvious that Hoffman's character, wealthy financier Chester "Ace" Bernstein, isn't a common thug when his personal driver picks him up. His driver, Gus "the Greek" Demetriou, played amiably by Farina, is on casual terms with Ace, but he's obviously subservient. From their conversation we learn a crucial bit of information: Ace was behind bars for three years and can't own a racehorse, so the Greek picked up an owner's license and bought Ace's prized pony. Later we learn Ace maneuvered to get Gus the license and also engineered a seemingly legitimate streak of luck at the slots to explain why a driver could somehow afford a multimillion dollar racehorse. Ace knows how to take care of his problems.

From here, Luck quickly jumps around the track, introducing its various major players. There's Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a talented trainer, flirting with his veterinarian girlfriend Jo (Jill Hennessey) as she's elbow-deep in horse rectum. Rookie rider Leon "Bug" Micheaux (Tom Payne) gets a dressing down from Escalante after a smart-ass joke. Weathered owner/trainer Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) watches on as Rosie (Kerry Condon), an "exercise girl" who rides at practice and hopes to become a full-time jockey, takes a run on his last great shot at success. Shifty jockey agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), meanwhile, listens to Escalante complain about the mouthy Bug. The fidgety, stuttering Rathburn wears a rumpled, ill-fitting suit, but firms up into a commanding presence when talking to Ronnie Jenkins (real-life jockey Gary Stevens), an alcoholic and often-injured veteran rider.

Throughout Luck's premiere episode, Milch and Mann announce their field of characters by offering brief glimpses into their personalities, without too much exposition or wasted dialogue.

"You never get used to it. That's why they make Jim Beam."

The most promising storyline set up in the pilot involves four gambling losers with a strategic approach to the big Pick 6 jackpot. Wheelchair-bound asshole Marcus (Kevin Dunn), dimwitted Lonnie (Ian Hart), sweet-hearted Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and charismatic gambling addict Jerry (Jason Gedrick) split a bet with a potential multimillion dollar payoff. All they have to do is correctly call six races, with Jerry making the picks. They have an edge, though: Through close observation of practice runs, Jerry thinks Escalante is purposefully making a horse look slower than it is. That bit of info is key to their plans. The camaraderie between these conspiratorial deadbeats makes helps them to come across as more sympathetic than pathetic. Hoffman's Ace might be the face of Luck, but these degenerates are clearly the show's soul.

It's heartbreaking when the lead horse, with Bug on his back and the largest potential payday for Jerry's crew on the line, suddenly snaps a leg. It's a graphic and disturbing shot, as well as an obvious metaphor for the risks that almost every character on the show is taking, and how being good at something doesn't mean it's good for you. Fortunately for Jerry and the boys, the second-longest odds come through, netting them $2.5 million. Together, they agree to not publicly acknowledge their winnings and to keep a low profile, but shady dudes like these probably aren't too good with money.

It's tempting to pull out that hoary "the setting is the main character" cliche about the track, but despite the large cast and multiple subplots, Luck is clearly Hoffman's show. Everybody basically bows down to Ace when he returns to the building he lives in, and he gets the flashiest scene when he meets with an old criminal associate and feels disrespected. Ace comes off as a shrewd but disgruntled old man determined to prove that the world didn't pass him by as he aged in prison, especially when he grumbles in bed to a nearby Greek about how people such as himself used to run things from the backroom. It's not clear exactly what Ace did to go to jail or just how deeply involved in crime and gambling he is, but it's obvious he's not particularly happy.

As Luck's pilot ends, Mann stages an effectively intense and frantic race sequence, one that has major ramifications for everyone involved, and it's in the closing set-piece that several of Milch's characters become worthy of emotional investment. Ace, however, isn't one of them quite yet, despite his intriguing background and Hoffman's initially excellent performance. Let's hope that Luck's next few episodes make us feel something for him.