Cot Campbell: HBO’s Luck does racing no favors

by | 02.13.2012 | 12:36pm

So far, opinions vary widely about the new HBO series Luck, particularly within the Thoroughbred racing industry.  In a new commentary, Dogwood Stable president Cot Campbell, who was recently awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit for his many achievements in the business, expressed his views on the series and its potential impact on the racing industry.

Read his thoughts below.


Dogwood Stable through the years has brought about 1,200 new people into racing. But, if these people had been exposed to the HBO series Luck, that number would not have totaled 200.

Thoroughbred racing is certainly in need of exposure—other than Derby time—but I cannot drum up any enthusiasm for the material that is being provided by this new Sunday night cable series. Heavily reviewed and promoted, it is being seen by a great many people. And, if I were a novice, and got a glimpse of Luck, I would not want to go anywhere near a racetrack. And, also, if I were a novice, I would also not know what the hell the characters were talking about.

I am certainly not a prude, and have definitely had occasion to brush up against the seamier side of life—and the seamier side does appear at racetracks—but I have never seen an aggregation of more clearly evil, degraded, unhygienic bozoes than that which frequents and plies its trade at Luck's Santa Anita. Every conversation, every routine race track transaction is conducted in a ridiculously furtive, suspicious manner.

Gamblers make the game go. There is no doubt about that. Thank God for them! But…I have been to Santa Anita on numerous occasions and I have always seen many decently dressed, respectable looking gamblers/patrons milling about.

Certainly Luck's creator, the brilliant David Milch did not reach his exalted standing by chronicling the activities of “The Beautiful People.” The gritty underbelly of life has been his specialty. So, I was not expecting another Secretariat.

The credentials of the cast are most impressive, and the piece is brilliantly shot. I will certainly give Luck that.  The dialog is heavily laced with every imaginative version of four-letter words, but this is standard procedure in this day and time. More puzzling is that “inside” racetrack parlance or jargon is thrown about with no attempt to explain its meaning. This procedure is a characteristic of Milch, It is my understanding that he feels the viewer needs to work at it a bit. But how many neophytes would grasp expressions like “losing the shake,” or “Bug Boy,” or “a one-other- than?”

Believe me, I know that for this series to be titillating, it has got to be crammed with intriguing drama, romance, colorful characters, and there is some mystique in that element. But I think—in the interest of some accuracy—that the attractive, sporting, pageantry side of racing should be given at least a nod. Racing horses is a game that has attracted the Queen of England, the Aga Khan, the Arab Sheikhs, Winston Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover; families such as Mellon, Phipps, Vanderbilt, Whitney, Farish, DuPont ; Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, John Forsythe, Bob and Beverly Lewis, Jerry and Ann Moss… and I could go on and on. These are people who could afford and participate in any endeavor. They sure would not have gone for racing if it depended on blending in with the greasy congregation at Luck's version of Santa Anita.

The series will certainly bring more Southern Californians to Santa Anita, because they are there, and Luck is much in the news. But, as far as the rest of this sport/industry is concerned, David Milch did not create this vehicle to be a much-needed boon.  And—disappointingly—it will not be.

  • Bristling

    Cot Campbell is right on here

  • Jgeills

    Racing did attract the queen, Vanderbilt, etc. DID BEING THE FIGURATIVE WORD. I can care less what cot Campbell thinks or says. He’s no choir boy..

  • Backontop

    Hear, Hear!!!!

  • voiceofreason

    We don’t deserve “favors”, however.

  • Realistic

    I’m a track insider & I love LUCK.  I think it is a fair portrayal of what happens on the backside.  The small trainer with a potential Big Horse, the big trainer w/ another $2,000,000 prospect for owners with shady connections.  The exercise rider that is begging for a shot to ride a nice horse in the afternoon.  The bug jock struggling to learn the ropes.  The journeyman jock that has become jaded.  The jock agent that is trying to handle both, while telling trainers whatever he has to in an effort to keep business. I see it everyday.  It’s life inside the high fence, entered through a guard shack.

  • Rachel

    I don’t need to watch “Luck”…I read the Paulick Report that has everything “Luck” does, sans David Milch’s plethera of 4 letter bombs.
    After HSB I just think his writing went downhill and he’s substituted a foul mouth for good writing…

  • Josh

    I’m enjoying Luck so far.

  • Rick Abbott

    I don’t understand why anyone would have thought that David Milch would glamorize racing. Everything that he has ever done has been hyper-realistic (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) with the exception of “John from Cincinnati) which was a commercial flop. The racetrack is full of characters looking for an edge and, were Damon Runyon writing today, his dialogue would be full of popular expletives. Let’s give Milch a chance, we’re only three episodes in.

  • roger

    I agree with Josh….enjoying LUCK so far. There are some that have never seen or experienced anything but the TURF CLUB surroundings……David Milch is relating a different faction at the track and doing a fine job realistically portraying those characters in his scripts.

  • Realistic

    Just wondering Rach… You ever been to a racetrack?  Track side or back side, it is a “plethera of 4 letter bombs”… Pretty DAMN realistic.

  • hype22redux

    the only way to CLEAN UP THE UNDER BELLY of racing is to expose it…I like LUCK because that is the real world the seedy world,that has to be cleaned up…if the sport in the long run is to survive

  • Bristling

    Are you people for real ????? That don’t go on  on the backside. Luck is all BS !!!!

  • James Staples

    COT PLEASE DON’T FORE GET TWO REAL “GREAT ONES ” THAT OWNED & RACED T-BREDS…GEORGE WASHINGTON/THOMAS JEFFERSON…ty…

  • Spikeandjake2002

    you could not be more wrong.  there is an underbelly of everything.  but, this is an unrealistic as I have ever seen.  Cot is right on the money with the review.  this is total crap.

  • Anybody that watched or rather tried to watch Dead Wood should not be surprised or disappointed with Milch’s approach to this series. Yes, I agree with Mr. Campbell and would much rather see a more balanced depiction of the sport and the people involved.
    As a student of the “old west” I know it was much more like Dead Wood then Little House on the Prairie. That being said I would still prefer watching Little House. I don’t need “reality” thrown in my face every time I turn on the TV. I deal with life’s realities everyday. Come 9 o’clock I want a little sugar coating of how it could be instead of how it is.
    But I am with Rick Abbott. I’m paying $16 a month, $192 a year just for this show and will give it time to see what direction Milch plays to in the end.

  • James Staples

    RAY…PUT MY POST UP NOW!!!…

  • Guest

    I was referring to his writing over the years, from his start on Hill Street Blues (suck sand hairball) on down the potty-mouth increased with each new show…did you know he was an English major and taught English…makes me laugh at the irony.

    Yes, I have been to a racetrack, thank-you for asking…I’ve been a groom, hotwalked for days on end, mucked stalls, exercised, tubbed, wrapped, iced, hosed…
    I’ve rehabbed the broken, reschooled the “bad boys”…been bit, kicked, stomped, crowded, run over, bucked off, fell off, run off…been loved and trusted by many of my charges and have had more fun than should be legal…and loved every minute of it.

    I just wish I was younger so I could do it all again!

  • Dannick9

    Nor has he ever professed to be!  In fact, quite the opposite. You missed his point entirely and obviously don’t know much about this
    man who just received the Eclipse Award of Merit in this sport. “Memoirs of a Longshot” (his third/latest book) recounts some rough tales of his days on “the seamier side of life”. 
    Today, and for 40 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find an owner/Turf Club mainstay who’s been as personally involved with the “underbelly” of racing and has invested as much time, energy, heart, and money in the backside workers (as well as the sport of racing generally) as Cot Campbell and his wife, Anne.
    And, it IS a shame that, if there’s going to be a new show on our sport, it doesn’t accurately portray the entire spectrum of characters on both sides of the track – positive and negative – who keep playing their parts to keep racing going for centuries. Drawing more bettors into the game is important, as Cot points out LUCK will likely do, but if racing is to thrive, it’s going to need to attract investors as well to give these bettors something to bet on!

  • Joe

    Hey Spike: How is the code of silence that only serves to protect and spread evil working so far?

  • Jgeils

    Kow doubt he has done a lot. But please don’t use the eclipse award as a measuring stick. The eclipse awards are a joke.

  • Bob C

    I watched the first episode of Luck when it previewed over a month ago.  I completely agree with Mr. Campbell.  If people who have never been to the racetrack watched Luck they would think that everybody involved in racing is some sneaky, underhanded sleaze.
    Milch hasn’t done our game any favors and this series will only fan the flames for the anti-gambling crusaders.  It’s a bigger loser than a career maiden.

  • Lost In The Fog

    Cot Campbell wrote: “Racing horses is a game that has attracted the Queen of England, the Aga Khan, the Arab Sheikhs, Winston Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover; families such as Mellon, Phipps, Vanderbilt, Whitney, Farish, DuPont ; Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, John Forsythe, Bob and Beverly Lewis, Jerry and Ann Moss… and I could go on and on. These are people who could afford and participate in any endeavor. They sure would not have gone for racing if it depended on blending in with the greasy congregation at Luck’s version of Santa Anita.”

    So Mr. Campbell laments the fact that the extremely rich, famous, powerful and privileged are not adequately portrayed in HBO’s Luck?  And that if they’d  interacted with the great unwashed masses and lowlifes portrayed in Luck then they would not have chosen to grace the sport of horse racing with their presence?  What an absurd and arrogant premise.  

    Horse racing carries the moniker of “The Sport of Kings” but that is a legacy that predates the reality of the sport in America.  Horse racing in this country has always been a sport of the common man and gamblers, and even in its heyday the overwhelming majority of attendees at the track have reflected that.  It was never an impediment to participation by the privileged class in the past and it is certainly not an impediment today.  They always looked down from their ivory towers in the turf clubs, luxury boxes and suites insulated from the “uncomfortableness” of having to interact with the rest of us.  That hasn’t changed and it isn’t anything new.

  • Don Reed

    I was wondering when I’d encounter these commendable sentiments about the publicity given to the louts.  As colorful as they are – and their sense of humor will deflate even this windbag – Luck’s emphasis on the characterizations of the racetrackers isn’t doing us any favors.

    So be it.  Far worse: Censorship or public relations corporate plot “steering.” 

    Anne Campbell: I’m the one who spoke to you this last summer about Cot’s father’s novel, “Big Beverage.”.  It was a pleasure to have you come by, to say good evening, at our  table; our two young lady guests were quite impressed with your energy and laughter.

    How come YOU weren’t drafted for a role in Luck?

    Silly Hollywood.

  • Drgeorge

    Perhaps you skipped over the beginning of the paragraph you quote: “But I think—in the interest of some accuracy—that the attractive,
    sporting, pageantry side of racing should be given at least a nod.” 

    He’s not saying the common man and gamblers are or ever have been “impediments” to the wealthy, privileged people getting involved in racing – he’s saying that actually may be the case IF reality were as Milch chooses to unfortunately portray the ‘common man’ and gambler types on his TV show! 

    In fact, Cot even clarifies with: “the seamier side does appear at racetracks—but I have never seen an
    aggregation of more clearly evil, degraded, unhygienic bozoes than that
    which frequents and plies its trade at LUCK’s Santa Anita. Every
    conversation, every routine race track transaction is conducted in a
    ridiculously furtive, suspicious manner.

    Gamblers make the game
    go. There is no doubt about that. Thank God for them! But…I have been to
    Santa Anita on numerous occasions and I have always seen many decently
    dressed, respectable looking gamblers/patrons milling about.”

    In other words, what a shame for racing that Milch chooses to portray this element of racing as a no-good, underhanded, unappealing group of racetrack patrons…..and fails to give other elements their due, because that’s not the REALITY of a track the caliber of Santa Anita.

    Cot’s simply in search of a more fair and accurate representation of
    each group in the cast of characters who make up the colorful world of
    horseracing, be they gamblers, modest horse lovers, box seat holders or
    the Queen of England. And, conversely, perhaps it WOULD draw a wider audience if Milch didn’t use “insider” terms that a novice can’t be expected to understand.

    Your beef with his opinion, as you stated it, is based on a few sentences taken completely out of context. The gist of his opinion is based out of a motivation and desire for this much-talked-about new show to draw new fans to racing. Likely, as Cot also states, that’s not Milch’s motivation. And that’s OK, just disappointing as an appreciator of horseracing to discover!

  • James Staples

    BLESS YOUR SOUL!!!…ty…

  • Not sure what backside you are on but if you think Luck is an accurate portrayal of everyday life on the backstretch, you should probably move to another track.

  • Cot is dead on and anyone who thinks this is an accurate portrayal of life on the backside has obviously never been on a backside.  It is pure hollywood w/ bits and pieces of facts mixed in.  It definitely doesn’t do any good for racing but I doubt this was their intention in the 1st place.

  • MR PATRIOT

    LUCK is fiction, not a reality show

  • David M

    Luck is entertainment.  It was not created or written to be factual or enhance racing in general. Just one man’s story telling.  I take it with a grain of salt and usually a stiff drink. For me it beats the other options.  How many nights can America watch Idol,the Bachelor or a Bill O’Reilly rant anyway?
    Yes, like most I tire of seeing stereotypical gamblers losing all their money which I assume will happen over time here.  Strangely I would find it more interesting to see intelligent gamblers studying charts, utilizing technolgoy, replays, workouts and discipline to make a score and then invest it wisely instead of paying $32,500 for a $8,000 claimer off a two year layoff.  
    I don’t lose any sleep over potential fans being turned off.  The industry has a consistent track record of that and is continuing the grand tradition as I write. If the industry still thinks a movie will create a lasting boon well the industry could use some new leadership. 
    I will end with this.  Cot Campbell is an innovative, intelligent, wealthy man. He knows many wealthy folks.  Start a syndicate, Cot, to make a mini series that portrays racing in the light you think it deserves. Show the pagentry and beauty.  Maybe it will be a hit.  Unfortunately I think it would be viewed by the same 25 folks I sit around the OTB with every weekend.

  • Cher Villalobos

    I agree with Mr. Campbell.  My husband and I couldn’t even finish the first episode of Luck, as we thought it was very bad publicity for the sport.  Although lined with great actors, I agree that a series promoting the positives more so than the negatives would get us a lot more fans.  And everyone knows how desperately we need them!

  • brussellky

    Anti-gambling crusaders?  Bob, this is 2012 not 1962.  Gambling is being expanded in a majority of the states.  Racing has a lot to worry about but anti-gambling crusaders are not a problem!

  • rubnroll

    Oh heavens, Cot finds “luck” unseemly? Let me clutch my pearls and find my fainting couch. Yes, we all long for the days when the landed gentry did not have to consider the unwashed masses as they enjoyed a day in the Trustees Room. Joe Hirsch would supply the hagiography for these “great sports of the turf”.  The fans?-colorful background but they really did not matter-if they wanted to make a bet they had only one choice- racing. It was all good. Well, things have changed. For most people, the kind of characters in “Luck” (the deranged horseplayers and loathsome jocks agent excluded) are far more compelling than those Cot longs for. To the extent that owners draw fans, it’s George Steinbrenner and Mark Cuban who interest people, not some waspy third generation heir to a fortune. The backside scenes, while not all spot on, are far more realistic than anything in Secretariat, or Seabiscuit, for that matter. Now, paying 30k for an 8k claimer who is “double bowed” and had all of two in for him last time is a bit much. And how did he pass the vet? Anyway, I think the show is colorful and fun (you know, what sports are supposed to be)

  • Don Reed

    JUST in case anyone has lost their marbles and wants to read an unadulterated dense block ink masquerading as intelligence, ladies and gentlemen, it is our pleasure to present the above.

  • Don Reed

    Oh, goody.  Another slab of black, dense ink that might have been initially mistaken as the Dea Sea Scrolls

    The Scrolls were found in the desert. This author is still in it.

  • Lost In The Fog

    Drgeorge,

    It says much more about you than it does about me that you assume that because I disagree with a specific portion of Cot Campbell’s statement I therefore disagree with and/or don’t comprehend everything else he said.  That’s rather presumptuous on your part but thanks for your simplistic attempt at condescension. 

    I reiterate that I disagree (specifically) with his rather arrogant comments in the second to last paragraph.  The participation of the rich, famous and powerful in racing has never depended on their comfort level of “blending in” with the “greasy congregation…”  Since when did the privileged class ever try to or need to blend in with those elements to feel comfortable or willing to participate?  They are easily insulated (if they choose to be) from those elements at the track by virtue of their own position in society.  I’m not ripping the privileged class nor am I ripping the seedier members of the congregation but rather disagreeing that either represents an impediment to participation by the other.

  • Marshall Cassidy

    I don’t want to come off as an elite jerk, but why is anybody in this group of responders concerned with the effect such a telecast as Luck might have on its viewers? Same goes for you, Mr. Campbell.

    The most obvious effect demanded of Hollywood and television productions is sheer entertainment and little more. Both are completely subject to their bottom lines and both live or die with their commercial profitability — not their authenticity. That one project happens to be a little more based in reality, or one more thoroughly explores its writers’ disconnected imaginations bears little on the everyday truths of horse racing, Thoroughbred or Standardbred. The silliness of what we watch in theaters or in our living rooms is just that: time spent away from the hard, often barren truth of our lives. Time to feel emotion in either direction.

    It seems foolhardy to spend too much energy worrying about how these entertainment outlets depict our sport/business. This is America, afterall, and the market will determine who wins and who loses. I think horse racing is still important enough to enough people to withstand unfortunate media characterizations. By the same token, horse racing shouldn’t get too carried away with media accolades when they do come our way. The feel-good racing shows are still just entertainment, and rather shallow to anyone who lived and worked through those stories.

    As Shakespeare once opined, “… The truth will out.”

  • Dr.george

    “Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.
    It’s a difference of opinion that makes a horse race.” Mark Twain

    We’d likely be coming out of vastly different starting gates at vastly different racetracks if we were to stage a match race, so thanks, but no thanks.
    And, really no “condescension” intended. Feel free to hold tight to your narrow-minded interpretation if that’s what works for you. I”m willing to agree to disagree :)

  • Bellwether…

    ONCE UPON A TIME N AMERCIA IF ONE DIDN’T OWN LAND U WOULD BEE LOCKED UP IF CAUGHT WITH A T-BRED…THEN LOOSE THE HORSE…THATS WHEN KENTUCKY WAS A PART OF VIRGINIA!!!…ty…

  • Gary

    Cot is right.  And with a 0.2 18-49 television rating and 500,000 viewers Sunday, America agrees with him.  That rating doesn’t put Luck in (or even close) to the top 100 Cable shows.  Shameless on Showtime drew 1.5 million viewers to give you an example.

  • Spexracing

    Lmao… before I came into racing I came from law enforcement, and if you think what you see on Luck isn’t taking place on a track perhaps its time to have that vision checked. Now that being said is that all that goes on…mostly degenerates swarming like bees around a corrupt beehive? No but I’d put it right up there at 50%. Now I can also understand why there may be a different view between two owners at the same track per say. If you are Joe Schmoe with your hard knocking little 5k claimer, you swing by and your trainer isn’t sugar coating nada. If you are winery owning Pierre with a few graded runners, your trainer is making sure that when you visit every freaking last piece of straw is raked out of the row. While that may be a wee exaggeration, I have personally witnessed it. The more money people have at their disposal the more bs I watch get shoveled their way….. and laughably most gobble it down, and when they walk back to their Mercedes or Jaguars, the same people they just dealt with are having huge laughs.
    I have no horse in the race, I do it for me and me alone , bc frankly when I left copland I left any desire to deal with anything that had a mouth to run, but it’s a very interesting and complex world that is woven at the track, and if you continue to keep scratching you will find it damn near impossible to run out of layers.
    My main gripe is the lingo, other than the expletives, is far to advanced to draw a drama viewer in. That is where I feel the ball got dropped, no deflated. It is hard to really knock it beyond that, as I feel it should be given it’s run than analyzed. I think making inclusive to having to have HBO its first season is a shot in the foot. The scene is too complex to take in everything in 60 minutes. I would like to see HBO maybe open up viewing to anyone after the show airs,hence allowing subscribers first view but then also allowing those who might want to nibble the line a bit more before swallowing the worm that chance. I honestly think when a non race audience can ‘get’ it you might see it take off like the plodder turning for home.

  • Don Reed

    Superb writing.  Thank you.

  • Anne Faulconer

    because she’s a woman?

  • Don Reed

    Good point.  Being allergic to TV, I haven’t seen the show yet (I’me screwing up the resolve), so I don’t know if any women have been given substantial roles in the production of Luck. 

    From what I’ve read so far, women seem not to be a factor in the show (this would come as a surprise – or would it? – to the trainers at Parx, where a notable number of women trainers are holding their own in the standings).

    But given that the script is saturated with swearing, etc., I wouldn’t for a minute assume that anyone – regardless of sex – of Anne’s calibre would be flattered by an invitation to a casting call.

  • Anne Faulconer

    This comment is off-topic as far as Luck is concerned, but your comment “The more money people have at their disposal the more bs I watch get shoveled their way….. and laughably most gobble it down, and when they walk back to their Mercedes or Jaguars, the same people they just dealt with are having huge laughs.” is so very true. It was true many, many years ago, and even though I no longer work on the track, I suspect (one only has to read about the introduction to the biz both Jess Jackson & Satish Sanan received) it is just as true today. We can pontificate all we want regarding the reasons why this business flounders, but for me, your statement sums it up in a nutshell.

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