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Slow out of the gate, ‘Luck’ picks up down the stretch

Nick Nolte plays horse trainer who becomes an owner “Luck” HBO.

Nick Nolte plays a horse trainer who becomes an owner in “Luck” on HBO.

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‘LUCK’ ★★★

8 to 9 p.m. Sundays
on HBO

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Updated: February 28, 2012 8:12AM

Networks usually provide TV critics with one or two episodes of a new series to review.

HBO took the unusual step of sending out the entire nine-episode season of its new horseracing drama, “Luck.” The premium cable channel even included a five-page glossary of terms used by pony players.

These were two big clues that “Luck” is not the kind of show you watch while doing the ironing or paying the bills.

The latest creation of producer David Milch (“Deadwood”) — an insider’s look at the clandestine world of racing and the colorful characters who populate it — makes viewers work right out of the gate. The pilot throws us head first into a foreign world, leaving us to fend for ourselves through a thicket of multiple storylines that are in no rush to unfold.

“Audiences are more intelligent than they’re aware of,” said former Chicagoan Michael Mann (“Miami Vice”), one of “Luck’s” executive producers. “Yes, there will be some things they don’t quite get. But if they can get the generality of it, they’ll stick with you and come to understand it.”

Mann also directed the pilot, which is sometimes difficult to follow but always beautiful to look at. His cinematic portrayal of these 1,000-pound speed demons thundering around California’s Santa Anita track conveys all the excitement of horse racing; another powerful scene captures the heartbreak of it.

“Luck” begins with Chester “Ace” Bernstein — Dustin Hoffman in his first regular TV role — as he’s getting out of prison. Ace served three years in the hoosegow after taking the fall for someone else. Now, he’s ready to make money and settle some old scores.

His trusty driver and bodyguard, Gus “The Greek” (Dennis Farina), fronts as the owner of Ace’s new $2 million thoroughbred. The horse’s trainer is a shady but talented Peruvian (John Ortiz) who looks like Ozzie Guillen — and is about as easy to understand as the former White Sox manager. We also meet trainer-turned-owner Walter Smith (Nick Nolte), a somber soul who’s saddled with guilt over an unexplained secret.

The sprawling ensemble includes several jockeys, such as real-life Hall of Famer Gary Stevens as Ronnie Jenkins, and their agent: a goofy, stuttering and mostly annoying Richard Kind (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”).

“Luck” dives into just about every subculture of the horse-racing universe, from the fancy financiers in the penthouse box to the railbirds who live at the track, downing coffee and donuts and clutching their Daily Racing Form.

“It’s an education,” explained Jason Gedrick, a former Chicagoan who plays Jerry, a dashingly disheveled, compulsive gambler and brilliant handicapper. “It’s racing world CliffsNotes for each of these different factions that make up the world of horse racing.”

Gedrick’s faction — a group of four so-called “degenerates” — are the most entertaining and emotionally engaging characters in the series. Rounding out the band of misfits are mentally challenged Renzo and Lonnie, as well as scene-stealing Marcus, played by Kevin Dunn. (Dunn is another former Chicagoan, along with Kind and Farina.)

Using a wheelchair and taking frequent hits off his oxygen mask, Marcus is the sarcastic bearer of many of “Luck’s” best lines — and Milch has packed the script with lots of them.

When good-natured Renzo suggests the degenerates pool their money and buy a racehorse that’s brought them luck, Marcus has a different idea.

“How about if we get sentimental, we all hold hands around the men’s room toilet, flush the $8,000 we’d blow on the [horse] and at least that way save ourselves the sales tax,” Marcus says in a voice that could be Tony Soprano’s.

“Luck” can be maddeningly inscrutable but it becomes less so over time. Viewers who stick around for the finish line — and you can bet not all of them will — are going to need plenty of patience.

“It’s a slower burn than typical network television,” Gedrick said, “but it’s so much richer.”

In “Luck,” it’s the horses that go fast, not the storytelling.

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