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Thoroughbred experts and those in racing say their acceptance of mortality in racing stems from an understanding of the animals powering the sport.
“You don’t force a racehorse to race. They love running,” said Dr. Larry Bramlage of Lexington, Ky., a nationally prominent equine veterinarian with 37 years’ experience. “If you came to where I am right now, with all the yearlings in the field, you’d see them out there trying to prove who runs the best.”
Richard Mandella — a Hall of Fame trainer at Santa Anita Park, the sprawling, historic track in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia where “Luck” was filmed — said “a love affair” exists between the people and horses in racing.
But even hard work and “extreme efforts” can’t protect the animals, he said.
“As far as accidents happening … I don’t care if they’re in a prairie or anywhere, that can happen,” Mandella said. “They play rough and they’re competitive.”
What happened to the HBO show, he suggested, could have been a run of sad misfortune.
The drama about the underbelly of racing starred Dustin Hoffman, in his first TV series, as a crime boss scheming to bring casino gambling to a track. Nick Nolte, Joan Allen, Michael Gambon and Dennis Farina were among other high-profile actors in the show.
Series creator and producer Milch has had success in broadcast TV with “NYPD Blue” and on HBO with “Deadwood.” Michael Mann, the big-screen director whose credits include “Heat” and “Public Enemies,” paired with Milch as producer and directed the pilot.
The complex drama proved a challenge for viewers, and “Luck” fell far short of an HBO hit such as “The Sopranos,” drawing as few as 500,000 for a weekly debut showing. But the combined figure that included DVR viewings was 4.8 million per episode, exceeding that of other HBO shows including “Treme,” ”Enlightened” and “Bored to Death.”
Milch, a successful race horse owner himself, had generated a misfire for the channel before, with the short-lived “John from Cincinnati” in 2007, but he is a valuable creative partner for HBO. Making the decision to end production on “Luck” was a difficult but, it seems, inevitable one.
HBO, owned by Time Warner Inc., was being hit by the kind of bad publicity that only the most successful project could justify enduring.
Among those condemning the equine deaths was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which called oversight of the animals’ welfare inadequate and alleged that old, unfit horses were being overworked.
“Racing itself is dangerous enough. This is a fictional representation of something and horses are still dying, and that to me is outrageous,” Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice president, said after the second equine death.
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