I’ve never understood some people’s fascination with horses. Horse lovers can go on and on about the creatures’ beauty, their gracefulness, their mystique. Me, I see overgrown donkeys that would love nothing more than to kick me in the nads. But HBO’s Luck, the new drama about horse racing that debuted tonight, is taking my ignorance for quite a ride of clarity. Through the eyes of Michael Mann (Heat) and the words and characters of David Milch (Deadwood), the jaw-dropping beauty of horses and desperate atmosphere of the world of horse racing come to light in what could be HBO’s best new series.

Just as Boardwalk Empire‘s pilot benefited from producer Martin Scorsese’s directing chops, Luck‘s pilot benefited from Mann’s. But Mann outdid his fellow Directing Hall of Famer and just about everyone else on the planet with masterful work here. Luck is absolutely gorgeous, and Mann’s ability to capture the brutality and grace of the Sport of Kings with mind-boggling camera angles and how-did-they-do-that tracking shots (seriously, how DID they do that?) is staggering. Shots that dart back and forth between a wild horse’s eye and an intense jockey’s eye only emphasize the tenuous bond between rider and animal, and remind us that these are human beings careening around a track at ridiculous speeds on top of a frickin’ beast.

But Luck isn’t just about the duos racing around the track, it’s about everything that goes on around the track. Milch turns his eye toward all tiers of the racetrack hierarchy; here, they involve the recently released from prison Ace (Dustin Hoffman), scheming horse trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), a pair of jockeys looking to make names for themselves, an owner named Walter Smith (Nick Nolte) who just might have the next great thoroughbred on his hands, and a quartet of lowly gamblers trying to win enough to buy their next meal. In the pilot, we saw how all of their lives intersect, and how risks and gambles taken by one of them affect the lives of the others.

Milch and Mann hit the ground galloping in the series’ first chapter, making it our job to hang on while navigating this unique culture. I’ve seen the pilot three times now, and I’m still only mostly sure of what’s really going on. There’s a lot of horse lingo and racetrack banter that requires a few passes to fully understand, the pilot introduced several budding story threads right off the bat, and there’s a whole stable full of characters to follow, but even in its complexity, Luck manages to avoid being alienating or boring. It’s daring us to decipher what’s going on, and viewers who are up to the challenge will be rewarded.

It’s too early to discuss plot, but it isn’t too early to start rooting for the deliciously rich characters. Escalante, the fiery trainer, might not be the most honest man with his scam of doing all he can to boost the odds of his horse (slow preliminary runs, inexperienced jockeys). But John Ortiz’s intense performance and whip-like tongue make the character a magnet. Luck is sure to feature many shades of gray, but as of the pilot, Escalante is looking like the man in black. Walter Smith (Nolte) is on the brighter side of things with his “peach” of a horse, a gorgeous animal Walter is pinning all his hopes on. There’s something about the way that Walter looks at and speaks about the horse that’s reverent, but is it real love for the animal that’s doing the talking, or simply the potential earnings it can reap? I’m picking Walter’s faction, which includes female jockey Rosie (Kerry Condon), as my early favorite. Eternally five-o-clock-shadowed Jerry (Jason Gedrick) looks to be our walking tragedy, the man we want to see do well but who will inevitably screw things up. A gambling addict who can never get enough, his life is about to change due to that big Pick 6 score. The question is how his partners are going to handle the situation, and how long Jerry can make his share last.

When Luck was first announced, it never occurred to me that horse-racing is the perfect backdrop for a television drama. The sport—and, consequently, the show—has a little bit of everything: high-stakes gambling, life or death situations (poor horsey), match-ups between underdogs and heavy favorites, and the potential for thrilling races that will remain mostly out of characters’ hands each and every week.

HBO has plenty of shows (Boardwalk Empire, Treme) that I know are great but still overlook because they seem like a chore to watch. There will be no need to drag me to Luck, however. HBO has picked itself a winner with this one.

Notes:

– What a terrible cameo by Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke, who gets a lot of TV time on ESPN’s Around the Horn. Give that screen time to Tim Cowlishaw!

– Richard Kind, who plays the stuttering middleman Joey Rathburn, is excellent. The same can be said for Kevin Dunn as the wheelchair-bound ringleader of the gambling quartet. Both these roles are treats for the two character actors, and I hope they get to stick around for a long time.

– I’m really liking both the score and the licensed music. There’s a wide variety of genres (Etta James, Sigur Ros) that all work well with Mann’s visuals. And how about those great opening credits?

– Pick 6 betting can be confusing. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject does a good job of explaining it if you need a 101 course.


Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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