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An industry running out of luck?
March 26, 2012 7:45 AM   Subscribe

After three horses used in the production of Luck had to be euthanized due to injury, HBO decided to pull the plug on the horse racing drama. Perhaps for the first time since Eight Belles broke down following the running of the Kentucky Derby in 2008, the deaths and subsequent decision to cancel the show have again cast a national spotlight on the darker side of the US horse racing industry, a business “still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.”
posted by lovermont (41 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Horse (and dog) racing is a weird anachronism that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense in this day and age.

Why hasn't the gambling world caught on to modern technological horse substitutes, like the velocipede or the penny-farthing?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:37 AM on March 26, 2012


like the velocipede or the penny-farthing?

Keirin
posted by normy at 8:47 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


From TFA:

At the track, a horse puts its life on the line so gamblers can stake $2 or more to win, place or show, with the industry and fans accepting the danger to animals and jockeys as a harsh part of the bargain.

This. It is also true that a horse running in the pasture can stop short, snap its leg or detach a tendon, and practically end its life. But we run really young horses to the point where they can die on the track so people can watch. It is not cool. I went to one race, the Belmont Stakes in '99. That's the one where Charismatic snapped a leg and Chris Antley jumped off to support its leg and save its life. I've not attended any race after seeing that.

Horses do suffer in other equestrian pursuits, some from ignorance and neglect, some from 'horses being horses.' The difference is that in riding the rider assumes responsibility for the welfare of the horse. At the track not so much. Not to say that there aren't loyal fans out there who contribute to retirement funds etc. But it's not my cup of tea.
posted by drowsy at 8:59 AM on March 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Luck was not a show worth killing horses for.

It wasn't a show worth killing houseflies for.
posted by Trurl at 9:05 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


My daughter is a big-time equestrian person and she hates the racing industry. Horses really shouldn't be ridden at all until they are 3 - their legs are not developed fully.

Also, the rampant over breeding in search of the next Secretariat is a whole 'nother problem. One of our friends has a thoroughbred that she bought at auction for a few hundred bucks. She traced it's Jockey Club ID and the horse sold as a yearling for $135,000 dollars. It was sired by a Kentucky Derby winner, but I'm blanking out on which one right now.
posted by COD at 9:11 AM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Twenty-four horses a week die at racetracks around the country.
posted by mediareport at 9:19 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some threads cry to be derailed, because some tangential brainfarts cannot be suppressed:

Newer racing fads can be established. You simply need to get the word out.

For example, Peanut Shell Crawling. This was a popular sport in the early 70's at a drinking establishment just outside the gate at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, which served snacks and spirits, and provided buckets upon buckets of un-shelled peanuts to their patrons. The patrons simply dropped the peanut shells on the floor, making a fine bed for the crawlers.

The crawlers raced (from any designated point) to either the bar or the hallway leading to the restroom, using a technique the military calls "the low crawl." The racer is propelled by his forearms and knees, giving him the aspect of a "running lizard," which enables him to cover a lot of ground in a short time, but with a huge expenditure of energy.

Onlookers may or may not place bets, but they usually cheer the racers on, or otherwise encourage them by throwing peanut shells at them. No formal limit is placed on the number of participants allowed in any given race. Barfing racers are disqualified, and usually get ejected from the premises. I forget what the winner gets.

There may have been other rules.
posted by mule98J at 9:19 AM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whoops, I got a bit inaccurate above. From the little I know, jockeys tend to care a lot about the horses since they suffer the same abuse. They push each other to fatal ends and might understand each other. I was trying to oversimplify my biased observations of racing spectators and active riders.
posted by drowsy at 9:23 AM on March 26, 2012


The crawlers raced (from any designated point) to either the bar or the hallway leading to the restroom, using a technique the military calls "the low crawl." The racer is propelled by his forearms and knees,

How do you even train a horse to do that
posted by Wolfdog at 9:29 AM on March 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


Thanks, Wolfdog, for my first full out knee slap laugh of the day. Good on ya.
posted by spicynuts at 9:39 AM on March 26, 2012


Yeah, horse racing is for gamblers. Ban it, or at least ban betting on it and take the skeevy money out of it. Let gamblers bet on cards and slot machines.
posted by pracowity at 9:47 AM on March 26, 2012


Why can't we put bets on people running?
posted by stormpooper at 9:48 AM on March 26, 2012


The first episode of this show featured a horse dying on the track, and then, afterwards, the jockeys walking and talking and suffering the death.

I couldn't watch another episode. It was too much to take just knowing that the show is a reflection of how it really goes down.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:49 AM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


In a time when greyhound tracks are being shutdown at a steady clip, horse racing gets a cable show.

By the way, please adopt a retired racing greyhound. They are sweet, do not shed, don't bark much at all, sleep a lot and are great with kids. Adoption agencies are everywhere... just search for greyhound rescue.
posted by basicchannel at 9:58 AM on March 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


"Horse (and dog) racing is a weird anachronism that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense in this day and age."

I feel the same way about boxing, but despite boxing's surely corruption led decline, MMA appears to be as popular as boxing ever was. I guess people crave a certain level of blood-lust in their daily lives, that hasn't changed.

The horse deaths in Luck are lamentable, and it says something that the creators of the show voluntarily cancelled production; but my god that show gave a glimpse of the beauty of horses. Its not for everyone, but its a beautiful show about community and life.
posted by stratastar at 9:59 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Horse (and dog) racing is a weird anachronism that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense in this day and age."

I feel the same way about boxing,


Me too, but at least boxers have some choice in the matter.

The older I get, the harder it is to watch any sort of animal performances without wondering about abuse. The incentive is always there for the trainer, and of course animals aren't hard to replace and they never tell tales on you. The worst is that in the glare of a spotlight, you'll never be able to tell if an animal was taught properly and humanely to perform or was abused and hurt to make it do so. Really spoils the fun.
posted by emjaybee at 10:09 AM on March 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why can't we put bets on people running?

You've never put a flutter on the 100m dash?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:21 AM on March 26, 2012


In case you missed it, Buck.
posted by phaedon at 10:25 AM on March 26, 2012


What happened to the AHA's (the "No Animals Were Harmed" group) oversight of this production? One horse can be a fluke, two horses can be an ugly coincidence. But when you get to 3 horses, someone has very likely fallen asleep at the switch and either didn't properly design or properly implement the necessary safety precautions for the horses.
posted by chimaera at 10:28 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here is AHA's review of their on-set oversight of production on Luck.

This was their report on what seems to be the first incident, in April 2010.

This is a short report on the third (and last) injury, in March 2012.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 10:49 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Horses are a drug. It doesn't make their abuse any less troubling.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 10:53 AM on March 26, 2012


Horses really shouldn't be ridden at all until they are 3 - their legs are not developed fully.

This is not what science says. Studies show -- consistently -- that a controlled exercise program increases bone density in young horses. Riding at two years of age has definite benefits, provided the horse is brought along correctly.

There are a lot of racing people who are very, very good at starting horses as early 2 year-olds.

I breed and train horses for sport. Most of them are Thoroughbreds or mostly-TBs. I get them working in hand and under saddle in their two year-old year. Longevity? My 35 year-old died a couple of months ago, and I have several sound senior citizens out in the field.

Every horse is different and matures at its own pace. It's not like racing people don't recognize this. Many (if not most) horses do not race as two year-olds. 2YOs often aren't ready and don't 'get' racing, so there's not much point. Big horses, like Zenyatta, often wait until well into their 3YO year.

Racing does have its problems. Big name, dope-happy trainers like Steve Asmussen, Patrick Biancone and Rick Dutrow, Jr. are three of them, although Dutrow's recent 10-year ban is a good start.

HBO needed an excuse to cancel Luck. The ratings are more to blame than the horse deaths.
posted by grounded at 10:58 AM on March 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm a little disappointed (but not surprised) that despite the huge industry around horce racing we've never developed the vetrinary technology necessary to treat a broken horse leg. Surely with enough R&D we would eventually discover a method to set the break and apply some kind of cast that would support the horse's weight in a manner that would allow the leg to heal.

I know the upfront expense is probably why it hasn't happened, but surely the benefits would add up if a broken leg only meant the end of a horse's season instead of it's life and racing career. After some quick googling I know a little more about the unique technical challenges and obstacles, but honestly if they put as much effort into it as they did for steriods I'm sure there would be progress.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:59 AM on March 26, 2012


But when you get to 3 horses, someone has very likely fallen asleep at the switch and either didn't properly design or properly implement the necessary safety precautions for the horses.

Did you follow the final link? In the same period that those 3 horses died, 613 other horses died at California racetracks alone--two wrongs don't make a right but the vast majority of people I've heard talk about those 3 horses have no context whatsoever. Proper context hardly points to neglect on the part of the show's creators. Follow the above links to read up on the AHS's analysis.

David Milch, the creator of Luck, owns multiple racehorses, at least two of which he's bought with winnings of The Humanitas Prize, an award for writing which promotes human dignity, meaning, and freedom. His horses have won the Breeder's Cup multiple times. He loves horses (and other animals) and when he speaks of them it is with reverence.

Luck was a fantastic show with rich, multi-layered characters and plots. It's unfortunate they couldn't find a way to continue the show and just have less horse racing. Much of the show took place at the track, but it's not a show about horse racing--it's a show about guilt, responsibility, fate, luck, and the interconnectedness of all things. I'll miss it.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 11:00 AM on March 26, 2012


I salute the submitter for not using "beating a dead horse" anywhere in the descriptor.
posted by Renoroc at 11:08 AM on March 26, 2012


Did you follow the final link? In the same period that those 3 horses died, 613 other horses died at California racetracks alone--two wrongs don't make a right but the vast majority of people I've heard talk about those 3 horses have no context whatsoever. Proper context hardly points to neglect on the part of the show's creators.

Huh? How does the context excuse the show at all? What you're saying is that anyone who knows about horse racing knows that horse racing very often kills horses.

So they knew this would happen, and they did it anyway. In what way is that even the least bit better?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:09 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the same period that those 3 horses died, 613 other horses died at California racetracks alone

I'm not sure your comparison holds up as strongly, on closer inspection. How many racetracks are there? And then there is the question of whether this even merits this comparison, when television and film productions are supposed to have higher standards for animal treatment altogether.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:37 AM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Huh? How does the context excuse the show at all?

I'm not trying to excuse the show--I'm suggesting that the death of the horses does not mean a derelict of duties on the part of the show's creators, which is what almost every discussion I've heard of it claims, something that is far easier to do if one is ignorant of how often horses die in this kind of labour.

On the radio show The Business, a journalist from the Los Angeles Times brought on a worker from PETA as an authority. Well, that's just ridiculous because of course PETA thinks the horses are being abused. PETA thinks abuse is inherent in the domestication of animals. PETA thinks my dog is being abused as he sleeps on his bed. I'm suggesting that the issue of whether horse racing is unethical or inhumane is irrelevant to the TV show Luck. Slave trading is inhumane. Creating Roots was not.

Horse racing may be inhumane. The horses on Luck may have been mistreated (in the "normal" sense, not in the PETA sense). The two things are separate.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:08 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]



I'm not trying to excuse the show--I'm suggesting that the death of the horses does not mean a derelict of duties on the part of the show's creators, which is what almost every discussion I've heard of it claims, something that is far easier to do if one is ignorant of how often horses die in this kind of labour.


I have some level of background in risk assessment and risk management (on large and small projects), and I got into a fairly long argument with someone after the second death, where I was defending the show and the AHA -- once is a tragedy, which merits a thorough review of the incident and any potential systematic issues which could have been overlooked.

A second death is a horrible coincidence, but that means escalation of your investigation: it merits a stop of all work and a thorough, detailed review of safety procedures, emergency response procedures, review of all training personnel and the training process.

A third death indicates that even after the second death, there very well may have been a systematic risk which was STILL not adequately addressed, OR that your review after the second incident might have fallen prey to certain things being swept under the rug. It is an indication that the risk was either vastly underestimated or poorly managed.

If what it comes down to is that the risk of killing horses on a TV show where they are not worked hard or long is too high to permit the continuation of the show, then there is no business in anyone racing horses anywhere.

Does that help? If the risk is that extreme, anyone who is participating is perpetuating an industry that is inherently so risky to horses that it should be stopped entirely.

Or if horse racing isn't inherently excessively risky, it seems likely that someone on the show underestimated and undermanaged these risks.
posted by chimaera at 12:36 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure your comparison holds up as strongly, on closer inspection. How many racetracks are there? And then there is the question of whether this even merits this comparison, when television and film productions are supposed to have higher standards for animal treatment altogether.

Agreed. I'd like to see some statistics from other recent film productions. Seems like there have been a lot of horse movies lately (that is not a statement intended to handicap feature films): War Horse, Hidalgo, LotR. That's the arena for an apt comparison.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 12:38 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't part of it that the animals bread for racing are basically bread to go as fast as possible? Aren't other types of horses more robust? Or not?
posted by delmoi at 12:50 PM on March 26, 2012


I started watching Luck because it was David Milch and Michael Mann. And it had Hoffman and Farina. The horse racing angle did appeal to me (and doesn't) but the stories revolving around the track did. There were the gamblers, the horse owners, the trainers, riders and explored the concept of "luck" to those different circles.

One of the things about the show was it was clear that the characters were passionate about the horses. Pretty much any scene with Dustin Hoffman or Nick Nolte were Emmy-worth. Even the group of gamblers was smitten by the horses. The Irish jockeys were in love with horses.

The organized crime story with Hoffman and Michael Gambon about trying to bring casino gaming to the ailing race tracks was interesting.

The trainer Turo Escalante was channeling Al Swearengen at times.

The show was wonderful. The only problem was it took place at a race track and involved animals that were bred to be fast but as a result have legs like matchsticks.

A third death indicates that even after the second death, there very well may have been a systematic risk which was STILL not adequately addressed, OR that your review after the second incident might have fallen prey to certain things being swept under the rug. It is an indication that the risk was either vastly underestimated or poorly managed.

Or it could be really bad luck.

This morning, a horse who was going to be filmed in the HBO television series "Luck" died in a tragic accident. The horse had just been inspected and passed by a licensed veterinarian conducting soundness checks and was being walked back to its barn by a groom at Santa Anita Racetrack when it reared up, fell backwards and was injured. American Humane Association Certified Safety Representatives were on the scene and the attending veterinarian provided emergency assistance to the animal. Unfortunately, the injury was serious and could not be treated, and the most humane course, to the great sorrow of everyone present, was humane euthanasia. - AHA

In many ways this articulated some of the themes that Luck was trying to show. I'm certain the production was doing all it could to prevent another horse injury and it was a horse walking to the barn that was the third strike. It also sort of is telling how Milch seems to be doomed on HBO in that his shows always get canceled even though I think both parties want success.

It was a great show that had talent that like Hoffman and Nolte that don't do TV. Instead of being another brilliant-but-canceled cult favorite it will instead be known as the show that killed those horses.

In the same period that those 3 horses died, 613 other horses died at California racetracks alone

...How many racetracks are there?


There are six racetracks in California: Santa Anita (in Arcadia where Luck was shot), Del Mar (north of San Diego), Hollywood Park (Inglewood), Los Alamitos (OC), Golden Gate (East Bay), Cal Expo (Harness Racing, Sacramento).

If there's a positive outcome from this I think it will bring more attention to the fragility of thoroughbred horses and just how dangerous it is for these animals. Not just the horses on the cameras for the HBO show, but for the working horses at Del Mar, Hollywood, Santa Anita, etc every season. My local racetrack, Del Mar, puts more into the people watching (people wear vintage hats) and they have bands that appeal to younger people included with the price of admission. Seems they could probably dispense with the horse racing part altogether. Or like the plot line in Luck about Hoffman's character wanting to bring casino gaming to horse tracks. Just as your seeing bullfights being outlawed in Spain and Mexico City, it might be time to figure out how to make horse racing safer for the horses. If that means they're bred to have stronger legs but run slower, so be it.

I hope HBO and Milch work together again on a project that doesn't involve horse tracks or surfing as a metaphor for god.
posted by birdherder at 1:34 PM on March 26, 2012


What a great thread. I learned a lot, not least of which is: David Milch is like that gambler from the show: great luck at horse betting, bad luck at poker/having a tv show not get canceled.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:06 PM on March 26, 2012


Or it could be really bad luck.

Absolutely it could be really bad luck. But the space for bad luck continues to shrink as the number of incidents grow. Were there any commonalities among the incidents? In the last incident, specifically, was the horse's assessment for soundness inclusive of being trained to be on a noisy, people-filled set? Has this horse had previous instances of panic? Rearing up and falling backward, resulting in an injury which required euthanasia (nearly always something directly related to the legs, as the proverb "horses have 5 hearts" is pretty important to remember when you wonder why euthanasia over a broken leg is common) isn't something horses simply do on their own.

Yeah this could be bad luck, and if the 3 deaths had all very different circumstances, this could definitely be a case of where the law of large numbers came and whacked them in the face. But generally you take a sequence of events and decide the point after which you presume that "bad luck" is systematic first, and assume in your investigation that there is a problem that needs addressing rather than assuming "shit happens." I think 3 deaths on a filming set is probably that threshold.
posted by chimaera at 3:54 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm suggesting that the issue of whether horse racing is unethical or inhumane is irrelevant to the TV show Luck. Slave trading is inhumane. Creating Roots was not.

You understand that LeVar Burton was never actually enslaved, right?

These horses really died. For a TV show.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:12 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The horses were put down due to injuries sustained while running. The risk model is 1 per 500 starts. 3 per 2500 is less than the risk model.

I don't blame luck, or anyone. What I do wonder is, why does a horse in today's world have to be killed due to a broken leg? We have amputees climbing mountains on MIT-designed Prostheses. My father fully recovered from two shattered heels sustained from a fall from two-stories high (in 1996!)

To me, all this begs the questions: Why do horses have to be killed for something this simple? Also, why do we allow it?

Don't blame the TV show, that's like blaming the school for the neighborhood being shit.
posted by roboton666 at 4:31 PM on March 26, 2012


You can read an interview with Milch on the cancellation here, which includes a link to documentation on the show's safety protocols. This has been David Milch's dream project for many years, and based solely on the episode content (which admittedly isn't much) it seems to me that he really, really loves horses. If they have been mistreated, I would honestly be surprised.

I've been enjoying the show a great deal, and it's a shame things turned out this way.
posted by Sibrax at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2012


You understand that LeVar Burton was never actually enslaved, right?

No one remembers the lost season of Reading Rainbow?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:21 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The first episode of this show featured a horse dying on the track, and then, afterwards, the jockeys walking and talking and suffering the death.

For the record, that horse was not injured--the shot was done with special effects. So you're not seeing one of the actual horse deaths there. I agree it's extra spooky when you know about them, though.

I thought the show was great, but even before the news broke, I remember thinking there was no animal-safe way to film it. Cancelling it was the right thing to do, under the circumstances.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:51 PM on March 26, 2012


roboton666: Why do horses have to be killed for something this simple? Also, why do we allow it?

We allow it (I'm assuming you mean euthanasia) because it's often the kindest choice. Horses are flight animals and not designed to be immobilized for long periods of time. It causes a cascade of health problems for reasons mostly unique to horses, like their size, hoof design, and poor circulation below the knees.

Barbaro had the best care money could buy. His injury was considered fixable, and he was immobilized and his weight held up by a sling for weeks while his leg healed. And in the end, he developed laminitis, a painful foot condition caused by favoring his sore leg, and had to be euthanized anyway. If it hadn't been laminitis, it would have been something else.

Medicine has changed over the years, but horses haven't.
posted by swerve at 10:56 PM on March 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The horses were put down due to injuries sustained while running.

Not the third one:
Michael Mann: It’s a sinking feeling. And the first thing you need to ask is, you know, what happened? It’s been reported that the horse was being led by a groom, he was being walked back to his stall, [he] was frazzled by something, reared back and lost his footing and hit his head when he fell, and that resulted in heavy bleeding.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:37 AM on March 27, 2012


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