Previously titled, My review of “Luck”

This morning, I was going to write a review of Luck, the horse-racing drama on HBO. I had finally seen the first two episodes, and I was very excited about it. Here, at last, was an amazing racing show. This was no Family Channel hash-up of The Black Stallion; this was really racing.

I was going to tell you that yes, the break-down scene in the first episode is brutal, nauseating even, but that the scene allows us to see the two sides of racing: the inhumanity as the bettors, who had been rooting for that horse to win so that they could collect a massive Pick Six pay-out, simply shift their alliance to the next longest-shot in the race and root him home, and the humanity, as the stricken bug boy leaves the track and asks veteran Gary Stevens if it ever gets any easier.

image from Luck

A trainer and horse in "Luck". Notice how the trainer is PETTING HIS HORSE AND SMILING, not BEATING IT WITH A TWO BY FOUR. Yes, this actually happens.

No, Stevens tells him. That’s what Jim Beam is for.

I was going to tell you that there are, indeed, both types at the racetrack, as there are anywhere: the callous who are looking for a quick buck, a sure thing, a hefty pay-out, and the compassionate, who understand that horses are living, feeling creatures.

I was just going to tell you it was a damn fine show.

Look it up on the Internet if you want, but don’t get too addicted. It’s been cancelled, apparently because three horses have died since the filming started.

I find this to be a nonsensical unlikely reason to cancel a show. Are HBO producers providing their own racehorses and training them for the production? Um, I sincerely doubt it. So tell me, how is a television show being filmed at a working racetrack liable for the deaths of horses in training? I suppose it’s possible that the horses tripped over camera wires or hit their heads on mike booms. But I feel like that would have been reported, probably on TMZ. If the horse died, they may want to talk to the horse’s trainer, not the people behind the cameras. Who is ultimately responsible?

I don’t know what happened to the first two horses, although I have read comments that suggest the deaths were in no way associated with the filming of the show. The third horse reared, flipped, and hit its head. As is accurately stated below…

“We see several of those injuries in the stable area every year,” Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the racing board, said in a statement supplied by HBO. “They are more common than people realize.”

…this sort of thing isn’t exactly a lone incident. And again, unless the horse spooked at an HBO camera being waved about at the end of the shedrow, I fail to see what this has to do with a television show.

PETA, of course, are making all sorts of statements about how dangerous the show’s production has been, and are filing complaints with the District Attorney’s office in L.A. While it’s quite likely that awful ratings played a bigger-than-announced part in the cancellation of Luck, it is annoying that PETA will probably take some of the credit for ending the show.

And it’s more than a little annoying that the show had to end for any reason, PETA or ratings. It should have been given a shot to win people over.

Could Luck have been good for racing, despite showing the good, the bad, and the monstrous? I think so, yes, and here is why: people only see the front-side right now. The front-side of racing happens in public. The front-side of racing isn’t the prettiest part, despite the suits and the braided manes. The front-side is where the gamblers are chomping on cigars and throwing down betting slips, shouting obscenities at jockeys and being generally horrible. The front-side is where all the money is. And money is just so unattractive.

Someone needs to show the back-side, where yes, bad things happen, but so do good things, just like in any other barn in any other horse sport. Someone needs to show a trainer leaning into his horse, rubbing her neck, whispering “You’re a good girl, you’re a good girl,” to her while she eats her hay. Someone needs to show a rider patting a horse and offering him a candy after a work-out. Someone needs to show the good parts as well as the bad parts. That’s the documentation racing needs, and does not have.

As for racehorses who die in training? Horses die in training every day, in every sport. Racehorses die on television. Show horses die on private farms, or at horse shows the average Joe will never know existed. Racehorses die and make the news. Show horses die and make horse blogs, or not at all.

And backyard horses, trail horses, pleasure horses, horses of every color and stripe and whinny and creed? They die, too.

But in racing, all the constant dangers of working with horses, their frequent injuries and ailments and bad behavior, are put on stage, televised, and recorded for posterity, every day of the week. And so for the average American, it looks like horses are injured or die in racing constantly, but never at all in the idyllic, green-pastures-world of show or pleasure life.

Google “horse deaths in racing” and you don’t even have to type in the letters “in racing”; Google already figured that’s what you were looking for. Look at the big news agencies and dedicated sites like racehorsedeathwatch.com.

Now Google “horse deaths in eventing.” Not so many sites pop up, eh? Dedicated horse sites and that New York Times story from 2008 on rotational falls. (And that was about rider deaths.) But these horses die, too. They break legs, they break necks, they  fall over fences or land badly… it happens! There was at least one horse death recently; a horse was put down after fracturing a leg cross-country. But I read that at Eventing Nation, not in the Times or USA Today. (And I can’t find it now… I think it was an aside, not a full entry.)

Horses are injured and die in the general day-to-day activities of just being a horse. There is a reason why veterinarians have 24-hour emergency numbers and big clinics have vets on the road 24/7. It’s a dangerous thing to be a horse. There are so many interesting ways to get hurt.

The point is, the poor public perception of racing is not extended to other horse sports because racing is done in full view of the public. The injuries are reported and, in the afternoons, televised. The deaths are public. The money changing hands is (usually) a matter of public record. The same cannot be said for any other horse sport. But let’s not kid ourselves, and pretend that racing is the only sport in which people make a lot of money off the backs of horses. Let’s be honest, and admit that there are show horse trainers making big bucks at the cost of their horses’ health and safety. Let’s stop blaming purses and betting for just a few moments, and acknowledge that even when the prize is a scrap of cheap fabric, people will spend fortunes to acquire it.

Racing is regulated, and watched, and there are constant efforts being made to make it safer and to protect the horses. Their footing is scrutinized, their handlers are licensed, their blood is tested. There are real efforts being made every day to protect racehorses from not just financial exploitation, but from themselves, from the naturally inherent dangers of being a horse.

I would worry more about the horse in this video, being mis-handled by rank amateurs and a kid in show clothes who lets her lead-rope dangle on the ground while she leads him from the wrong side, than I would about the average racehorse.

Regulation, and observation. If only every horse sport could boast the same attention and documentation as horse racing.

But then again, perhaps not. Perhaps if there were cameras trained, every day, on the training and showing of horses in all their myriad disciplines, all horse sports would find themselves blushing in the same negative light that horse racing has found itself.

Maybe racing didn’t need “Luck.” Maybe we already have too many cameras for the public to ever accept us. But there is good there, as well. I’m sorry more people don’t get the chance to see it.

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18 Comments

Filed under Media Coverage, Racing, Stereotypes

18 responses to “Previously titled, My review of “Luck”

  1. Bravo, and excellent points made. Horses die all the time, in all kinds of crazy ways (I’m sure we’ve all heard of horse that managed to kill itself in some crazy, unbelievable way!), and the public isn’t generally aware of it because it’s not as publicized as racing, as you noted.

    • Thanks Jenn! The fact that racing is held to a different standard because its ills are done in public is actually a problem that has been annoying me for a very long time. This just illustrates the point so neatly.

      We (I include myself in that “we”) often cry out for more transparency in racing; I wonder if we can even handle the transparency that we have. And yet most horse sports are operated with exactly none, under the radar and self-policing, with only indignant horse blogs to report on cruelty and drugging, and the worst crime Suzy Householder could accuse dressage of is being boring.

  2. Watch this clip, and read the last paragraph of this piece at The Atlantic. It makes my point perfectly: the good parts that Luck could have shown us:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/03/rip-hbos-luck/254539/

  3. How interesting- you took a different approach than I might have imagined! I didn’t have enough facts to assess whether the show should be cancelled or not- though the article I read did quote the director saying that standards of humanity were exceeded in production. Ultimately, I feel sad- sad that horses die in training (even if its common, it is still unfortunate), and sad that the world is so over-regulated and hyper-sensitive (aka, PETA’s aggressive lawsuits) that it is too darn expensive or annoying to try to DO anything that might upset an activist group. It is sad to me that production companies will avoid horse (or any other animal) movies with a ten foot pole due to potential welfare outcry. There are some racing movies (cheezy, but touching) that show the humanity of racing, but not yet a TV show… maybe you can make one happen 🙂 Thanks for the interesting (and bold) take on “Luck!”

    • Thanks, Corinna. Did I throw you a curveball? LOL.

      This is a really tragic situation and yet it is impossible not to shake one’s head and say “typical.” How many people do you think were just WAITING for break-downs to occur.

      And listen, if this last death had been another on-track breakdown, I might very well be singing a different tune. But the uproar over an unfortunate incident like a flip-over is just absurd.

      If anyone ever visits the racetrack during training hours, watch what the rider does when their horse rears (and they love to rear!: first, lean forward and wrap arms around the horse’s neck.. second, JUMP OFF. There’s a reason for that.

      Yeah the cheesy racing movies are more than I can handle. Give me Seabiscuit, that’s as Hollywood as I can take… 🙂

  4. linda Redman

    I completely disagree. Standards for use of animals in films should ensure that they have the protection they deserve. Three horses having to be euthanized on this set makes it clear that this hasn’t been the case. The autopsy reports for the first two deaths stated that the horses were in extreme pain and highly sedated. THAT IS WRONG! Get your facts straight!

    • Well, okay. I read through the autopsies myself. It doesn’t actually say they were in extreme pain and highly sedated… that is what the article said, and this is a major tabloid-type article. It DOES say they both had arthritis and one of them was sedated.

      I’ll spare you the misery of the horrible Radaronline.com article they’re attached to, although I found this line interesting:

      ‘Meanwhile, after reading through the autopsy reports, an esteemed veterinarian has agreed with PETA and placed the blame for the horses’ deaths firmly on HBO.

      “My concerns are over who was conditioning and overseeing the training of the horses,” equine veterinarian Eleanor Lenher, DVM revealed to RadarOnline.com.’

      “REVEALED”? REALLY? What IS this website? Anyway… Dr. Lenher says that she is questioning who is in charge of these horses. Me too. That, exactly, is what should have been investigated from the get-go.

      Both horses had degenerative joint disease and moderate ulcers, but that’s not remarkable in itself… most horses do. The medications… here is where it gets interesting:

      The eight year old Horse had no stated medications.

      The five year old gelding was on bute, banamine, Torbugesic (a sedative?) and prednisone. DUDE. Three pain drugs and a sedative and this horse was out galloping.

      The sedative is a weird touch, I think, unless anyone has any differing opinions.

      Now mind you, this horse broke down while there were still AHA monitors on the scene.

      A sudden question comes to my mind: do the AHA monitors understand horse racing? Are they horsemen or veterinarians? Did they not know the horse was on all those medications/did they not know the horse shouldn’t be on all those medications/did they understand the stress of galloping at racing speed?

      Whoever was in charge of the horse’s health, I want to hear from. But I would also like to hear from the AHA monitors who were there.

      Here are the autopsy reports: http://www.radaronline.com/sites/radaronline.com/files/Exhibits-A-and-B-to-PETA-Letter-3.13.12.pdf

      Oh, and here is the horrible article, if you want to torture your eyes/brain. http://www.radaronline.com/exclusives/2012/03/luck-cancelled-horse-died-peta-accuses-hbo-murder

  5. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this take, In a very strong way.

    How many horses needed to die for an HBO TV show before its a problem? In my world one. In others I suppose it’s not big deal because racing is dangerous. Yes, horses get hurt and horses die in racing, should that give HBO a free pass with trouble on their set? Should HBO not be held responsible for what happens on their sets? The production company which has hired the handlers, hired the trainers and bought the services of the horses are actually the responsible party when things with their production go wrong. Why would the track who has rented out the location be responsible for what happens? That’s not how filming a TV series works. HBO says they were taking every precaution but until there’s an investigation ( which no doubt this cancellation will halt) you don’t know if they are telling the truth, you don’t know if a PA was handling the horses, or if a piece of equipment caused the accident, or of horses were doped up or unfit for racing horses were being raced. If a human actor died on set you wold be very sure that that it would matter. 3 horse actors died and its no big deal, Really? Lets not forget HBO has been all over the map on this, their PR people denying at first the latest incident didn’t even happen.

    I’m a huge fan of your blog and an avid reader but you got this one all wrong. TV and racing are not the same business. Not the same business at all, not even close. Personally, id rather there be no fictional shows about racing then have one on the air where horses die every season.

    • Fair enough, Lolz, and of course, I don’t think HBO should be allowed to kill as many horses as it takes to make a TV show. Things should have been reviewed. Cancellation was almost certainly more related to low ratings. The show was more trouble than it was worth.

      But this last horse, and the reaction… I’m confused. I believe it’s fair to *assume* that a horse being led away from a vet examination which rears and flips did not die as a reaction to filming, isn’t it? Horses DO that. They really do. And if someone is reading this and is thinking furiously that they have NEVER, EVER seen a horse flip over well, then, you’re very fortunate. You’re not exactly missing out on anything.

      And so that is my point: the public perception of racing is SO skewed, BECAUSE of television and regulation that are meant to showcase and protect the horses, that people outside the business think every horse that ever steps foot onto a track is an abused animal just waiting to take its last fatal step.

      My hope for “Luck” was to shine more of a light onto the relationships people have with their horses on the back-side. Something I have tried to do on this blog in the past, when I went to work as an exercise rider and wrote about it; something I have tried to do with my fiction as well.

      So I understand your disagreement with the implication that it’s okay for horses to die. I didn’t mean it quite like that. But I wonder if you’ll agree with me that it would have been nice for this one to have worked out its problems.

  6. Its clear you really want people to understand that all of racing isn’t a horrible thing and that some people care and love their racers. I don’t know if Luck actually did that but its clear you had hopes it would. Yes i agree it would have been nice if HBO/Luck worked out its problems. Though i don’t think a TV entity such as HBO should be allowed much of a learning curve when it comes to animal safety on set. In fact the AHA requested the shut down of horse filming. HBO however complied before the decision to cancel the series. I also agree its more then likely they canceled because of weak ratings Not because horses died in their care.

    • And what I really want to know is who was responsible for the care of the horses and the workload of the horses. Somewhere along the line, someone must have okayed the horses being overworked, if they in fact were injured as a result of their work on the show. And that’s why I think the safety parameters should have been reviewed. But the negative stereotypes associated with racing proved to be too much to bear. That’s my opinion, anyway.

      Thank you for the conversation, Lolz!

  7. I think part of what you’re trying to say is that HBO and TV/Movie people should not be expected to know everything there is to know about working with horses–particularly the over-grown toddlers they turn into on a regular basis.

    They HIRED trainers, they HIRED experts to be on-set, right? Those people should know what they are doing and what a horse needs. (The drugging thing for the one horse? Who was that? Not the show’s producers, I’m sure.) Those people may in fact be the actual responsible parties, not HBO and/or the show’s producers. IF (hugely unlikely) they didn’t hire train horse people, well that’s another story. But I find that very, very hard to believe.

    Heck, I’ve owed horse now for a mere 7 years and they STILL surprise me!

  8. That was brilliant, Natalie. So spot-on, it’s scary.
    Excellent questions you’ve asked. I hope someone out there in racing land will answer. That one horse for sure, shouldn’t have been racing. But that happens, at the track, and at any barn.

    The big trouble with horses is how quickly they can kill themselves. You said it far better. Okay, to be completely incorrect, You said it MORE better.

  9. It’s sad that reality is so unpalatable to the public. The only way racing is going to improve it’s maximally public personna/reputation, is to show everything, and let the public decide. Too bad “Luck” won’t be allowed to do that.

    The biggest problem with horse sport is horse people. Wake up, and talk to each other. Might have saved Chief’s life.

    I read on the CHDC site that the latest statistic for TB’s IS (drumRoll please) 70% of all TB’s go to slaughter. Do you think the AQHA would supply THEIR slaughter percentage statistics? Hell, no. At least TB’s are, as you say, completely, utterly public. Let the public start to love the sport again. DO something to prevent these unnecessary deaths. Non-horse people will never understand that horses can and do drop dead, because of their little lemon brains sending them over that cliff.. Doesn’t mean we should be ignoring ways we can help them to live longer and (sorry) show profit.
    That is no small feat in the equestrian world..

    Great post, Nat. I couldn’t agree more.

  10. Great blog. HBO obviously caved to PETA. As you pointed out, horses, by their very nature, are subject to many kinds of accidents. One only has to look in a year’s headlines of Thoroughbred Times or Blood Horse to see the number of famous horses who die each year in pasture accidents. Look at the number of foals who are bred and born to be racehorses and the number who never make it to the track for a huge variety of reasons. Look at the number of 3 year old “stars” who are aiming for the Triple Crown who are injured way before the Kentucky Derby. These are just the TB’s, multiply this by the number of horses of other breeds of all ages who also have accidents or who are injured at their jobs, even if it is pleasure riding. I, too, pray for TV or other widely known media to show the real world of the horse business. So sad that Luck was not even given a chance.

  11. Thank you Natalie. I have been in the racing industry all my life. I had a 25 horse farm business that was about birth to racetrack. I had, I don’t know how many animals die on that farm from colic to lightening strike to a horse getting his leather halter hung up and consequently beating his brains out. Someone told me: Where there is livestock there is dead stock. It’s not easy, I mourn all of the animal deaths I’ve had to endure, but life is hard, deal with it. This is the bottom line though: Our society has been high jacked by a belief system that utopia is possible. i.e. these people believe that if they impose enough regulation on we the people utopia will be achieved….this has been proven to be utterly insane as evidenced by communism, duh. We need to wake up as Americans and take our country back. Don’t forget the most recent insanity..the federal gov’t is now restricting teens from working on family farms, look it up. Our society is asleep and the elites in washington are quietly transforming our way of life. PETA is just one example of these well meaning people that lack common sense and an inability to accept that bad things in life happen.

  12. nancy

    I am a huge horse-racing fan. I had been looking forward to this show since I heard it was filming. It didn’t disappoint. I really loved this show. I believe the points you wrote here describe a fair view of “Luck” as well as horse-racing. I believe “Luck” would have been good for horse-racing. My best friend, who attends Santa Anita every week-end, said he noticed more people than usual. He is one of the people who love the horses; he is not in the category of shouting obscenities at ANYONE and is not even a big gambler. I also believe that the people in charge of looking after the safety of the horses on this show were NOT doing their jobs. Maybe unqualified people were put in charge; maybe people were not paying attention. I, too, would like to hear from the people who were in charge of monitoring the horses. Films such as “War Horse” and “Seabiscuit” were filmed without injury.

    The other part of the cancellation certainly DOES have to do with ratings. There is a long relationship between HBO and David Milch, and the relationship has not always been the most positive. “Deadwood” was an excellent show, but got cancelled after the second season. I won’t even mention ”John From Cincinnati” (awful). David Milch owns racehorses, and I thought that this, combined with the stellar cast, would surely make “Luck” a hit. I have friends who told me that they didn’t understand the show, but were willing to hang in and watch it. I told them it would get more interesting. But Milch’s stories take time to build upon, and network suits are too greedy and impatient to allow time for that to happen.

    I looked forward to watching each character’s story unfold a little more each week and the relationships they formed with their horses. I am really sorry the horses died. There will never be another story like “Luck”.

    Nancy

    (PS The person in the horse video link deserves a good kick, and I hope he gets it. People like this should not be around ANY animals)