Monday, May 28, 2018
Cot Campbell is Wrong About 'Luck'

Admittedly I could have come up with a more creative and diplomatic title for this post, but nothing else comes to mind at the moment. In any case, the title sums up the article nicely. It is what it is.

Last month, Dogwood Stable's W. Cothran "Cot" Campbell was honored with the Eclipse Award of Merit for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in Thoroughbred horse racing. This means that in his long, successful career the 84-year-old Campbell has been right far more often than he has been wrong. Nevertheless, I think Cot Campbell was wrong yesterday in his opinion about HBO's new series "Luck" and have the right to respond accordingly.

Mr. Campbell's primary thesis is that "Luck" will have no appreciable positive impact on the Thoroughbred racing industry aside from a bump in attendance at Santa Anita. This is due, it seems, to certain of "Luck's" characters, the "evil, degraded, unhygienic bozoes" and their "ridiculously furtive, suspicious manner". He also takes issue with the impenetrable racetrack jargon that dominates "Luck's" dialogue.

Let's just chill for a minute. "Luck" is a dramatic series created for the purpose of entertaining people sitting on their couches. Further, it is a dramatic series about horse racing... from the iconic cable channel HBO... shown at the prestigious timeslot of 9:00 PM Sunday... starring Dustin Hoffman. Now, you already knew all that, but I encourage you to consider those facts anew.

It is true that "Luck" creator David Milch will not ever win the Eclipse Award of Merit for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in Thoroughbred racing. But it is also true that David Milch has a lifetime of immersion in Thoroughbred racing to draw upon. And Milch has seen things and lived through things that Cot Campbell hasn't. Milch knows what it feels like to buy a good horse and win an important race. But he also knows what it feels like to have to get a bet down in order to feel alive.

I get the sense that Cot Campbell has a major problem with "Luck's" gamblers, the smarmy Four Amigos. Granted, these roles could have been more realistic. Instead, Jerry, Marcus, Renzo and Lonnie might be modern horseplayers equipped with iPads, databases, and soccer practice schedules. Weekend warriors who take too frequent breaks from their professions to play a race or two during the workday... on their smartphones... and tweet about it. Would you watch that show? I wouldn't.

Give me these desperate souls existing on a weird fringe of society with no apparent responsibilities beyond eating and gambling. They are interesting. I find it fascinating to glimpse into their fictional world as escapist entertainment. And as individual character studies, there is much to learn about each of them and their group dynamics.

Yes, they are caricatures. That said, what are your chances of meeting a real-life Marcus the next time you visit a racetrack or OTB? It's not a longshot bet.

So what have innocent viewers been exposed to through three episodes of this seedy look into horse racing's dark underbelly called "Luck"? Let's see. We saw a horse break down during a race. We saw a team of gamblers put together a large Pick-6 ticket. And hit it. We saw the process to claim a horse in great detail. We saw a trainer enter his horse in a race. We saw a post-position draw. We saw the private sale of a horse. And we saw horse racing, in brilliant HD at Santa Anita.

Will anyone with no prior affinity to racing who watches "Luck" eventually become involved in Thoroughbred racing as a bettor, owner, or in some other way? Or even just check out an important race on TV? Of course. The only question is how many, and what can we do to help them along.

If "Luck" has a problem, it's not that it portrays the darker side of Thoroughbred racing, it's that it portrays Thoroughbred racing in the first place. The sport has an image problem that cannot be attributed to a fictional TV show.

Let's have an honest talk about ratings numbers... we're all adults here. The ratings numbers for "Luck" stink. But the good news is that, unlike broadcast TV, ratings are not the Holy Grail for HBO. And they believe in the show.

Sure, there was that thing called the Super Bowl. And last Sunday night the Grammy Awards telecast pulled in a smashing 39 million viewers. Meanwhile over on basic cable, a record-breaking 10 million viewers watched flesh-eating zombies in the mid-season return of "The Walking Dead" on AMC. By the way, I'm a big "The Walking Dead" fan too. I don't think Cot Campbell is, but maybe I'm wrong. Come to think of it, one of my favorite horses in training is Santa Anita-based Amazombie... maybe that's our hook to get these zombie fans into "Luck".... nevermind... focus.

"Luck" is pulling in about a million viewers over multiple showings on Sunday evenings. That's about as many people who will watch the Breeders' Cup telecast in a typical year. Which is to say, that's a low number.

But HBO knows a thing or two about building an audience so overall viewership for "Luck" is likely to creep upward, slow but sure, in fits and starts, especially into the next season... if viewers are willing to give a show about Thoroughbred racing a chance. And social media can help to spread the buzz. And viewing competition will not always be so stiff.

"Luck" is a great opportunity for racing to reach people it does not know how to reach. You don't have to like the show, but don't fear it. Viewers are smarter than you think. They understand stereotypes. And they just may begin to understand the subtle nuances and intriguing details about Thoroughbred racing.

Do you have a Twitter profile? Join cast members from HBO's "Luck" for #LuckChat to discuss the show's storylines and learn about Thoroughbred racing every Monday at 9:00 PM ET.