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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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Filed under Media Coverage, Racing, Stereotypes