H BO did the right thing in shutting down production on “Luck” this month after the death of a third horse being used for filming.
The series, which has been critically acclaimed for its gritty, up-close look at life at a racetrack, was created by David Milch, a longtime lover of horses and racing, and filmed at Santa Anita Park employing numerous safety protocols, according to HBO officials and Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. Representatives of the American Humane Association were on location to monitor treatment of the animals.
But those protocols didn’t prevent the three equine fatalities. The third horse did not die in the course of filming — it had just passed a veterinarian’s inspection and was being walked back to a barn when it reared up, fell backward and injured its head severely enough that it had to be euthanized. According to Arthur, that kind of accident is not uncommon.
However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had already raised questions and filed a complaint about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two other horses. The first suffered a catastrophic breakdown in 2010 during a second short-distance run in one day and had to be euthanized. In 2011, another horse had a devastating breakdown during a second run that necessitated euthanasia. A necropsy revealed that the 8-year-old horse had suffered from degenerative arthritis. After that, the show’s producers said they would X-ray horses before using them for filming.
Animal welfare advocates say that racehorses are generally never run twice in one day, no matter the distances. But Arthur said the horses on “Luck” were fit for multiple short runs below race speed and were rested and examined between workouts. “None of these horses were racing,” he said. “These horses were not at full speed.”
Horses are the most commonly used animal in TV and films, according to Kathy Guillermo of PETA. Yet they rarely die during production. No horses were fatally injured in the filming of “War Horse” or “Secretariat.” Use of stock footage, special effects and horses that have been trained to fall safely lessen the danger. Even if “Luck” was a victim of what Arthur called “an inordinate amount of bad luck,” the producers could have relied more on these devices.
“Luck” was beset by dismal ratings and warring executive producers — troubles big enough on their own to shutter a show. It’s possible that there was more than animal welfare behind HBO’s decision. Nonetheless, it was a humane move for the horses.