The HBO series “Luck” proved to be a bit of a misnomer after the cable channel cancelled the show following the deaths of three horses.
The series, helmed by popular actor Dustin Hoffman, premiered on HBO in December 2011. It told the story of an ex-con, his friend and their Irish racehorse, Pint of Plain.
From the beginning, the series was embroiled in controversy. Critics considered it too esoteric for lay audiences or anyone unfamiliar with racing lingo. Some labeled it a vanity project.
In the end though, it wasn’t poor feedback from television critics that halted production of the freshman series, it was public outrage from animal activist groups such as the American Humane Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Even before the scheduled close of first season production on March 25, three horses had been injured on the set of “Luck” and later euthanized.
The injuries occurred despite the presence of AHA representatives on set during filming of the show’s first and seventh episodes. Two of the horses suffered broken legs during filming of racing footage, which took place at the Santa Anita racetrack in California. The California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System examined the bodies of both horses, ages eight and five.
The necropsy reports revealed little, but PETA pounced on the fact that the 5-year-old horse had pain relievers in its system. The equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board countered that PETA was merely seeking publicity and the pain relievers were given to the horse after the injury occurred, nor prior.
After the second horse death, the AHA’s film and television unit urged “Luck” producers to cease using horses in all racetrack sequences until additional protective measures, such as additional veterinary exams and X-rays, could be conducted. The death of the third horse is currently under investigation, but Santa Anita veterinarians publicly voiced their support for HBO, maintaining that the network did all it could to provide for the safety of the animals. One veterinarian went even further, stating that horse injuries are much more common than most people realize and that the horse had passed a physical inspection just prior to racing.
HBO renewed “Luck” for a second season just after airing the premiere episode, so the cancellation came as a surprise to those closely involved with the cable show. The renewal was not seen as an endorsement of the series, which netted low viewership even by HBO standards. Rather it was interpreted as HBO having faith in the show's star power, which in addition to Hoffman included veteran actor Nick Nolte and director Michael Mann.
The series had human problems in addition to its animal welfare problems. Producer David Milch often had blow-out fights with Mann. Nolte told the “Los Angeles Times” that Milch had threatened to kill Mann with a baseball bat.
It’s entirely possible that 20 years from now, television historians will view the nine aired episodes of “Luck” as a masterpiece in storytelling. The series certainly contained some elements from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The plot moved along at a snail’s pace. It paid tribute to the world of horse racing in much the same way Tolstoy detailed the Napoleonic wars. It was directed, produced and starred perfectionists so notorious that much of the dialogue was unintelligible in its attempt at authenticity.
With all due respect to the equine lives lost, HBO’s decision to cancel the show, confining it to the length of a long mini-series, may in fact be what propels it to lasting fame.