Going beyond just the horses to trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, shady quasi-criminal types and degenerate gamblers, "Luck" creates a canvas of intense desperation, burning ambition, devastating peril and staggering beauty, all set against the lush backdrop of Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., near Los Angeles.
Dustin Hoffman tops the huge cast as Chester "Ace" Bernstein, a man with a questionable past who gets out of prison and embarks on a career as a covert Thoroughbred owner, with his loyal driver, Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), acting as his frontman.
Ace is a careful, deliberate man who plays things close to the vest. For Hoffman, that came out of choices made in preparing for the role.
"It wasn't a conscious decision," he says. "What you're wearing or not alters you. It doesn't take much. You learn your lines, you're told a few things. They say, 'Do you ever wear your hair straight back?' 'No.' 'Will you try that?' And Michael Mann says, 'Hey, I like it with your hair straight back.' 'Let's see what suit you're going to put on.'
"He has an image of the character, and you're going with that image. You learn the lines, then they just come out a certain way, and you're altered."
Among those followed on the backstretch are trainers Walt "The Old Man" Smith (Nick Nolte) -- inspired by, Nolte says, legendary trainer Jack Van Berg -- and Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), who has more than a professional relationship with his vet (Jill Hennessy). There are jockeys on the way up, such as Irish Rosie (Kerry Condon), and those trying to come back, such as Ronnie Jenkins (played by jockey Gary Stephens).
On the fringes of the track life are the degenerate gamblers, including one group -- whose most socially adept member, Jerry (Jason Gedrick), also has a weakness for cards -- struggling to find a way forward after a life-altering bet.
Although Milch has followed racing most of his life, owned Thoroughbreds and laid down more than a few bets, it took him a long time to get around to writing about it all.
"Certainly," he says, "I had an adequate exposure to it. I did a lot of research, but the deepest truths of that world -- I won't say that they had eluded me, but there's an expression, the ripeness is all, and I finally was ripe enough.
"These are not characters who let themselves be easily known, and a lot of them are composites. It takes a little while for the world to fully declare itself, but I hope they will hang in, because it's definitely worth the trip."
For Mann, who's more familiar with racing cars than horses, it was a foray into a new reality.
"The thing that surprised me the most," Mann says, "was the first time I was in a vehicle, and we were doing a tracking shot, and I was three or four feet away from a racehorse going full out -- and it's stunning.
"David talked quite a bit about a sense of nature and the spirit of being that close, involving yourself with the animal, like a trainer does, like Escalante would do -- but when you're actually up next to what feels like a 1,500-pound jack rabbit, that's a whole different thing.
"The athleticism of it, the spirit it's not like you have to encourage them to race; you have to repress the instinct to race. All they want to do is race."
But these days, the slow romance of race day, with its long pauses and brief explosions of action, is fading in a world of instant gratification.
"The pity is," says Nolte, "that horse racing is losing the imagination of the public. The mythology and the connection of man and horse is being lost. Gambling's taken over. They want to turn horse-racing tracks into casinos."
That world is also part of "Luck" through Gedrick's Jerry, who loves poker as much as the ponies.
"It just takes one win," says Gedrick, "even if it's just a hand, to create a certain rush. Once you start playing more often, the losing becomes a bigger rush than the winning.
"It's almost like the chemical experience that you have is more intense and encompassing physically than actually winning."