Luck writer brings HBO's horseracing drama back online
John Perrotta was a racetrack lifer when he got the call from David Milch in 2008 to come to California to join the writing staff for Luck. He’d represented jockeys and managed the stables owned by billionaire breeders for decades, so he was the perfect person to bring authenticity to the gritty drama that starred Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. His Luck cohort Bill Barich recently wrote in an essay for Narrative Magazine that Milch liked to say that Perrotta “knows where the bodies are buried,” but that’s just a Milch-ian way of saying that his pal knows everything there is to know about the sport of thoroughbred racing, from the barns to the jockey club to the luxury boxes. And while Luck‘s demise was ugly, with HBO pulling the plug after one low-rated season and a cloud of bad publicity surrounding the deaths of three horses, Perrotta and the show’s small but dedicated following still aren’t ready to say goodbye to the colorful collection of characters that roamed Santa Anita for just nine episodes.
Last week, Perrotta posted “Out of Luck … Buy Low, Sell High” on America’s Best Racing website, resurrecting the show’s characters and picking up their stories several months after the season 1 finale. Ace’s prize pony ran in the Kentucky Derby; Walter Smith kept his colt out of the big race, perhaps to steer clear of harsh questions into his mysterious past; and Jerry headed to Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker. Perrotta calls it fan-fiction, nothing more, but for followers of the show and people who saw something poetic in the lives of the people and horses that collide at the track, it’s both exciting and bittersweet to meet these characters again.
Perrotta, who’s now the agent for Hall of Fame jockey and Luck star Gary Stevens, spoke to Entertainment Weekly about his plans for his blog — a second “episode” debuts later today — and how he’s still mourning Luck‘s cancellation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Reading your first blog post — your first episode, I should say — I realized how much I missed these characters, especially those Degenerate gambles. Was it cathartic to revisit them, after what happened with the show, or painful?
JOHN PERROTTA: I loved them all so much, and they are real people to me. The jockey agent and the jockeys and the Degenerate gamblers were all people that I’ve lived most of my life with. The trainers, especially. I’ve known those guys. I was surprised at the reaction [the blog post] got, but in retrospect I’m not surprised now because as the characters are real to me, then when you read more about them, you don’t need to see it. You can imagine it. So when I talk about Goose or Marcus and those guys, you can put a face on them.
What inspired you to resurrect them online?
So many people walk up to me at the track and say, “What about that Luck thing? Is that coming back?” I say, “No, it’s not going to happen.” Once the show is gone, it’s gone. They don’t resurrect them, and it’s for a multitude of reasons why it went away in the first place. It wasn’t just PETA that killed it. It was a dozen different things that came together as a perfect storm conspiring against it. Then when I was at the Belmont Stakes, I met some of the guys from America’s Best Racing and I thought they were a really great bunch. They asked me to do a blog, and I was like, “What am I going to do — tell people what I had for lunch? Who cares?” But I had thoughts of where the story was going, and we had written several episodes, but those are all copyrighted materials. So I thought, “Well, I’ll just write my own thing.” What you’re seeing there is not what you were going to see [if the show had continued]. It’s what I thought you could have seen. It’s just another possibility. It’s really just fan fiction.
Was there an obstacle course of legal permissions to do something like this?
Technically, I don’t think I need any permission. It’s really my impressions and my opinions, which I’m entitled to. It’s a blog. I’m not writing a screenplay or a story. If I wanted to do that with it, I’m sure I would have a problem. I spoke to HBO and they didn’t care at all. They said, “It’s not coming back.” I asked David Milch for his permission, too, and he said, sure.
How did you and David cross paths in the first place?
I’ve known David Milch for years, since one of the first Breeders’ Cup races [when I was working for Due Process Stables in New Jersey]. I had been a journalist. I had worked for the Burlington Free Press up in Vermont when I got out of school, and I thought I was going to be a writer. I kept telling David, whenever you get ready to do a racetrack story, let me know — I want to work on it. So he called me — I guess it was in late ’08 — and said, “I’m going ahead with that.” So I flew out and showed him some of the scenes I had written and he liked them, so he signed me up.
Have you gotten over what happened with the show?
A lot of us were so plunged into depression when the show went down, writers and actors, because we were emotionally invested in it by that point and told that we were going to have a second season. We had signed up and were proceeding with the second season, and we were led to believe there was going to be a third and so forth. Myself included. I had moved here from Florida. I had sold my home there and pulled up stakes. [Fellow writer] Bill Barich came from Ireland, you know? So a lot of us reacted differently. I started writing a book, a racetrack book with Harper Collins. It’s “in the works,” as you know books are. It’s been there for awhile. That was my instinct, to keep writing. Because once you’ve been with David Milch for a couple of years, that’s all you can do is write. Whether it’s going to just sit on the shelf or not, you’re going to keep writing.
You mentioned HBO told you that the show isn’t coming back. Which I guess I knew, but I let myself hope that your blog might be the first step towards some second thoughts on the matter.
I asked David after the show was cancelled — we all did — “Can we do it without the horses or something?” He said, “Ain’t gonna happen.” Because whether it was a good judgement or a hasty decision by the HBO executives that canceled it, they did it and they’re responsible for that, so it’s a reflection on them. It becomes a political issue. The horse thing right now is such a big issue. Everybody’s so sensitive to poor publicity, but for PETA to say those horses were abused, I’m telling you, it’s the most ludicrous thing you ever heard. They couldn’t have been better taken care of, and I was there every single day that we filmed. Everybody went out of their way to baby those horses because the horses were part of the cast — they were stars. The grooms always wanted to say, “My horse was in the show.” There was a lot of pride involved.
Your second “episode” posts online this evening. How many more are you planning?
I was thinking 10 episodes. What I really would like to do is we get feedback and tweets from the fans and incorporate it into the story. In other words, the fans can actually help write the story.
Where are you hoping to take these characters with these stories?
Let’s put it this way: it’s a blog on a racing website, so that will give you a little hint. They’ll be more people at the racetrack involved. The gangster stuff that was portrayed makes for good TV, but for me, the reality of the racetrack is appealing. The more gruesome aspects don’t appeal that much. I think there’s lot of fun that can be had with people gambling and trying to learn about the sport, and winning and losing. Those stories go on every day at the racetrack.