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TrackNotes: Luck Death Toll Kills Series

It was one of those that broke badly and then broke worse. And it ultimately cast a pall over two separate entertainment industries.

But as the sickening details filtered out, it became clear that there are just about enough villains to fill the Kentucky Derby starting gate. From the California Horse Racing Board down through Santa Anita and its horsemen and squarely on the heads of executive producers and alleged taskmasters David Milch and Michael Mann.

The decision to cancel the Thoroughbred horse racing-themed Luck came one day after a horse used in the filming of the Dustin Hoffman-Nick Nolte vehicle's second season was being led back to her barn. She reared up, her legs slipped out from under her, and she fell and hit her head hard enough to require euthanization.

We soon learned that two other horses had broken down during filming of racing scenes in episodes of the first season.

Even as a variety of web sites and forums recapped or commented on Luck's week-to-week plot twists, including the Daily Racing Form, I had not seen nor do I believe the news of the first two horses' deaths was common knowledge, even on the racing forums and blogs I frequent. Although People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ran an item on its site in January.

Accidents - deadly accidents - happen in horse racing. My first thought was of a statistical anomaly. My second thought was, wait a minute, this is a television series being made. Wouldn't it be highly likely that these horses would be revved up to be filmed, shut down and then revved up again in the same afternoon to be filmed again?

I'm no trainer, but racehorses are highly regimented creatures of habit. That couldn't have been good.

The Daily Beast's Buzz Bissinger reported that "(Outlaw Yodeler, the first horse to break down) 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."

Between races, horses will gallop or canter almost every day, but they will run moderate- to high-speed workouts usually no more than once a week, often less. They don't work out twice in a day, which the filming schedule could have felt like.

It is a horse's instinct to run, and run in a pack. The great ones have the instinct to win, whether it's on the range or on a race track. Some horses never train "in company," lest they get too competitive and work out too quickly. It doesn't take much to get a horse's competitive juices flowing.

PETA apparently had insiders tipping it off about the problems with the horses' care.

"Just one day after PETA sent a complaint to Los Angeles law enforcement urging the agency to investigate the deaths of two horses during the filming of the first season of HBO's Luck, we have learned that another horse has died on the set. Insiders at Santa Anita Race Track, where the racing scenes are filmed, called us early Tuesday and tipped us off. Now HBO has confirmed it," PETA posted on its website.

In and of itself, attempting to turn a horse on and off at will like it was the Dukes of Hazzard Dodge Charger must be of great concern, but the story gets worse.

Outlaw Yodeler and the second horse to die, Marc's Shadow (a great-grandson of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew), were apparently not fit to run.

PETA quoted the two horses' necropsy reports: "Both were retired racehorses . . . Outlaw Yodeler was a 5-year-old thoroughbred who hadn't raced in months and was apparently so sore that he was given a potent cocktail of muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs, including Butorphanol, a painkiller so strong that it's often used as an analgesic for horses undergoing some kinds of surgery. The other horse, whose name we believe is Marc's Shadow, was 8-years-old and arthritic and had not raced in nearly four years."

Before the third incident, PETA had urged Luck producers Bruce Richmond and Michael Lombardo to beef up animal-care oversight on the set.

"We understand that there are currently no licensed humane officers on the set. This is inexplicable, unacceptable, and dangerous. While the (film industry's go-to) American Humane Association may have a representative present for filming, this is inadequate. We ask you to return at least one, and preferably more, California licensed humane officers to the set and to ensure that their recommendations about the choice of the horses used and the filming methods are followed to the letter."

A quote early on caught my attention: "In response to the letter (from PETA), a HBO spokesperson (said) that methods of selecting the horses for the show have been improved, adding 'protocols' had been put in place and 'rigorous training processes' adopted to minimalize horse injuries during shooting." This apparently came before the third horse's death.

One forum poster said a top assistant of a top California trainer had quit the set because producers wouldn't listen to him.

Sounds to me like they knew they had a problem.

The Doctor Feelgoods of the CHRB spewed their typical spin. California Horse Racing Board official veterinarian Dr. Gary Beck: "I had just examined the horse as part of our routine health and safety procedures prior to work that would be done later on the track. The horse was on her way back to the stall when she reared, flipped over backwards, and struck her head on the ground. Fortunately, attending veterinarian Dr. Heidi Agnic was there to administer immediate aid to the injured horse and determined that humane euthanasia was appropriate."

CHRB Equine Medical Director Dr. Rick Arthur adds, "Unfortunately, we see several of these injuries in the stable area every year. They are more common than people realize."

Yes, but these two chose only to address the horse who reared and fell, an unfortunate incident I believe was very probably just an accident. They're not talking about the two horse who died under very suspicious circumstances.

Just so you know, David Israel - yes, that David Israel - and alleged actress Bo Derek are two of the five members of the CHRB.

I have only seen the first episode of the show. Hoffman's out-of-jail-and-seeking-revenge character seemed soap opera and we got yet another treatment of horseplayers as broken-down, smelly bums. Nolte as the grizzled, unintelligible horse whisperer is quite the cliche, for Hollywood and racing.

Except for PETA and its moles, everybody here is to blame for such a breakdown of morals and ethics, from the CHRB on down through all Santa Anita officials (you think even the ticket takers didn't know about the first two deaths?), filmdom's beard, the American Humane Association, the filmmakers and high-profile trainers on the backside.

Hell will gladly accept whoever may have either dragged out old, well-past-racing horses and/or filled them up with drugs.

As for the racing media, I have given up expecting publications like DRF or BloodHorse.com, even with the assignment of guys like DRF's Jay Privman to a regular Santa Anita beat, to ever be any more than industry organs. That stagecoach has left the station.

In fact, the Form runs a betting portal based on the Xpressbet wagering platform. Xpressbet is owned by MI Developments, which also owns Santa Anita. I mentioned that once to DRF editor Steve Crist and he assured me it is not a conflict of interest. That was a relief.

Can't anyone do the right thing anymore? Or prevent the known, bad things from happening? Americans, on both sides of International Falls, are much better at marshaling resources to handle the perception of things than they are to solve the problems.

Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach, who got his start in Canadian auto parts, was on the spot with his typical bombastic bluster. He already wasn't happy with the plot lines. "I'm just disappointed because it puts sort of an ugly face on the whole point of horse racing."

Santa Anita Director of Special Projects Pete Siberell even told TVGuide.com that "[Stronach's] people in Toronto wanted me to set up a meeting with Mann and Milch to talk about the show. That was [Tuesday], when all this hit. We were going to have a meeting to talk about it because he was concerned about the direction the show was going."

Seems like there were a lot of people who should have been more concerned with how the lives of Outlaw Yodeler, Marc's Shadow and the third, unnamed horse were going.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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