INHUMANE

03.19.12

HBO’s ‘Luck’ Runs Out as Show Is Canceled After Three Horses Die

The show’s cancellation follows allegations of neglectful treatment. Buzz Bissinger on why three horses should never have died for the sake of entertainment.

They shoot horses, don’t they?

Come on.

This isn’t television. This is HBO, the studio that always does things differently.

So on the show Luck, about the inner world of horse racing, another way was found to gain the same result: 

No need for bullets—just euthanasia after bones in the legs of two horses exploded during the filming of mock racing scenes and, in one of the cases, shattered into fragments that poke through the skin.

The show, still airing its first season, was abruptly canceled by HBO last Wednesday after it was revealed that a third horse had died, in this instance as it reared and fell backward as it was being led to the barn at Santa Anita Park in California. The last episode will air Sunday, even though a second season of 10 planned episodes was already in production.

HBO executives have been quick to point out that the safety protocols for the horses used in Luck were above the industry standard. They have basically suggested that the three deaths, while unfortunate, were also unpreventable. In canceling the show, which is a clear stomp on the egos of such actors as Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, and the even-bigger egos of executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann, HBO has tried to spin this as an act of nobility to prevent further deaths.

In a word: 

Horseshit. 

HBO is a disgrace. Two of the horses, Outlaw Yodeler and Marc’s Shadow, died during mock racing. They didn’t die in an actual race, but in the pursuit of an hour’s worth of entertainment on television each week. But the last studio to feel disgrace about anything will be the first. If 25 horses died, and the show had the ratings success and buzz of The Sopranos or True Blood or Entourage, it would still be on the air, and the deaths would be attributed to sabotage by Showtime.

As it was, Luck fell from a high of nearly a million viewers for its January premiere to less than half that by the time HBO made its decision. Milch, who wrote such superb shows as NYPD Blue and Deadwood and also penned Luck, is a disgrace as well. So is Mann, who has directed such movies as The Insider and Public Enemies and was responsible for the riveting racing scenes in the show, although perhaps now we know why.

Both men give new method to megalomania; I know because I spent the worst year of my life working in Hollywood, writing for NYPD Blue after Milch’s departure. Both men are obsessed with perfection on their own terms. Both will do anything to get it right or what they perceive as right. If a couple of horses die, hey, that’s the price of their genius, their art, the Michelangelo and da Vinci of television, although, given the woefully uneven quality of the show and the inability to understand half of it because the sound was so lousy and the delivery and the actors garbled non sequiturs as though they were talking to themselves, maybe Starsky and Hutch.

After HBO announced the cancellation, it released a statement saying that the M-and-M boys were heartbroken over the decision, although they agreed that there was no other choice. There was no discussion in the statement of broken hearts over the deaths of three horses, only the concession there was no guarantee that another death would not occur.

The hideous irony is that the best element of Luck, what made it watchable, was the very way in which horses were depicted—beautiful, tender, vulnerable, noble, worth protecting at all costs from the connivers surrounding them in the name of winning a horse race.

In the very pursuit of that depiction, those horses died. I am sure more would have and the show never would have been canceled had it not been for the dogged onslaught of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The other hideous irony is that Milch is said to love horses, having spent many a day at the track either betting on them or owning them. As sycophantic television critics sift the ashes, intimidated by Milch’s reputation for brilliance, and always-easy suckers for his increasingly awkward and stilted jabberwocky that has become self-parody, they say they know that he feels terrible sorrow over what has happened.

Maybe he does. But judged by the criteria established by the Jockey Club, Outlaw Yodeler and Marc’s Shadow appear to have been potential time bombs.

Outlaw Yodeler, the first to be put down, was used April 30, 2010, for a first-season episode. According to a study of 754,932 starts by the Jockey Club, Outlaw Yodeler fit two of the three factors deemed to be the most significant in risk of injury: having numerous starts one to six months before being used again and not having started in the past 15 to 30 days. In 2009 Outlaw Yodeler had raced 12 times, a very heavy workload, and there was a 97-day lapse between his last race and his use in the filming of a mock race.

The hideous irony is that the best element of Luck, what made it watchable, was the very way in which horses were depicted.

According to a necropsy report filed, four pharmaceutical drugs were found in Outlaw Yodeler’s system, an astonishing amount. A California board-certified veterinarian on the set maintains they were administered to the horse after it was injured to calm the animal down. It makes sense. But a medical expert for PETA examining the necropsy report said some of those drugs must have been in the horse’s system before the accident. As Lindsay Waskey, the counsel for PETA, put it in a letter to the Pasadena Humane Society and the Los Angeles district attorney’s office on March 12, the presence of drugs suggests “Outlaw Yodeler was suffering from severe pain and inflammation. It also raises the possibility that he was not raced more frequently in 2010 due to injury or because he was physically unfit to participate in such strenuous events.”

He was filmed in two speed intervals on April 30. There was a break between the intervals, and the distance was short, anywhere from a quarter mile to a third of a mile. Nor were the horses raced at full speed. But as PETA’s Waskey pointed out in her letter, “Forcing horses to race in this manner is extremely dangerous as thoroughbreds do not generally race twice in one day, and rarely even twice in one week. Thoroughbreds cannot differentiate between what is actual training and racing and what is a mock race filmed by the entertainment industry.” If a horse is running at less than full speed, it suggests it is only doing so because the jockey is holding the horse back.

In running the second speed interval, Outlaw Yodeler’s humerus, the long bone in its right leg, basically exploded, according to the necropsy report and PETA. Such a catastrophic fracture, PETA pointed out in its letter, is indicative of a horse totally unfit for any kind of workout.

HBO said nary a word about what happened, standard procedure in Hollywood when animals die during filming. Two horses died during the making of Flicka in 2005. The famous giraffe Tweet, best known for the Toys “R” Us commercials, died in an enclosure at a zoo after shooting a scene with Kevin James in the film Zookeeper. The American Humane Association, supervising the films, found no evidence of negligence. The American Humane Association also supervised Luck.

The show must go on, and it did. 

About a year later, around March 28, 2011, an 8-year-old thoroughbred named Marc’s Shadow was used for the filming of a mock race. Its last start had been in November 2007, when it had finished ninth. Whistleblowers on the scene told PETA that the horse was arthritic, and the necropsy report noted degenerative arthrosis in both the right and left carpus. During the mock race, one of the bones in Marc Shadow’s right leg exploded into 19 pieces, some of which poked through skin.

With two horses now dead, HBO already had an ethical and humane responsibility to shut down Luck, or at least get rid of all the racing scenes. 

But the show must go on, and it did.

Then last week, a horse that had passed inspection by a California Horse Racing Board veterinarian reared up, fell backward, and suffered a fatal injury as it was being walked back into a Santa Anita barn. At first, according to the Los Angeles Times, HBO said it would halt the filming of all scenes involving horses pending an investigation. But PETA had gone public, and regardless of HBO’s spin of concern for the future welfare of horses, this was a public-relations disaster. So the show was canceled.

HBO has been quick to point out that allegations made by PETA of unsafe conditions “could not be further from the truth.” PETA can be out there; we all know that. But given the criteria set by an organization as important and prestigious in racing as the Jockey Club, many of its allegations appear to have sound merit. 

In the name of their supposed art, Milch, Mann, and the HBO brass were all too willing to subject horses to fatal harm. That’s the way I see it, and maybe that’s unfair, but there were alternatives. Before filming, PETA urged the executive producers to use stock footage instead of live horses. The plea was rejected, but there are films in which the characters of horses play pivotal roles and nobody gets hurt. In the film War Horse, for example, director Steven Spielberg took extreme precautions, including a special track to help horses’ footing, breakaway ropes to prevent tripping, and a healthy dose of computer-generated imagery.

The death of one horse in the shooting of Luck, as sad as it was, could have been excused. Thoroughbreds do die: 17 alone at New York’s Aqueduct since Nov. 30; 19 in the winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita Park in 2010–11. But these horses were racing or training to race. They were not appearing in a television show, innocent and unwitting actors facing death for the sake of fastidious detail and visual excitement whatever the risk.

PETA has filed a complaint with the Los Angeles district attorney, and if the allegations are true that either Milch, Mann, or HBO executives knew horses were being subjected to serious danger during filming, they should be convicted of animal cruelty and serve jail time, not some slap on the wrist.

Maybe then, and only then, Hollywood will realize that for all its entitled swagger and dick swinging, the preservation of life is actually still more important than megalomania, fatal pursuit of perfection, and the 8 p.m. seating at the Ivy, where people tell you how brilliant your show is even when it’s not.