In the pilot episode of the new HBO horse racing drama "Luck," a horse set for an improbable victory snaps her ankle and has to be euthanized on the track. The scene is stark and unforgiving, but the truth behind it is more so: In the filming of another scene from that same episode in 2010, a different horse actually did break its leg and had to be put down.
And in 2011, during shooting for the seventh episode, another horse sustained a similar injury. That horse was also put down.
"Luck," created by David Milch of "NYPD Blue" fame, stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte and explores the dark underworld beneath the glamour of horse racing. But in this case, truth is even sadder than fiction.
According to a statement from the American Humane Association, both horses fell during racing sequences, and veterinarians found their compound fractures to be inoperable. An AHA representative was on set when both accidents happened.
After the second death, HBO was asked to suspend the filming of racing scenes while its production staff worked with AHA to improve safety for these sequences. The AHA added an extra veterinarian to check the horses at the beginning of the day, and take radiographs of the horses' legs before the animals were cleared to appear in any racing scenes, which are simulated so the horse actor never runs full speed or the full length of the track.
In a statement prepared for ThePostGame.com, HBO said it fully complied with the more stringent rules, and immediately worked with the AHA and the California Racing Board for a full investigation and necropsy on the two horses.
"From the very outset of this project, the safety of the animals was of paramount concern to us," the HBO statement reads. "Recent assertions of lax attitudes or negligence could not be further from the truth. We partnered early on with American Humane Association, who is the only mandated authority in the industry, and we work very closely with the AHA and racing industry experts to implement safety protocols that go above and beyond typical film and TV industry standards and practices."
Still, the Time Warner Inc.-owned HBO hasn't released many details about the horses, and that has caused concern in the animal rights community.
Vickery Eckhoff, a contributing blogger on Forbes.com, writes, "As to those 'wonderful animals' the AHA extols, it's a bit hard to know how wonderful given that HBO isn't releasing any data on the horses themselves. Who were they? Fillies or colts? Bays, chestnuts or greys? Names? Ages? What about their breeding? Any stakes winners in there?"
HBO confirmed the horses involved in the accidents were racehorses, and although the network says it shared full details with the AHA and California Horse Racing Board to comply with standards, it considers other details to be privileged. HBO did stress that only experienced movie horses and even mechanical horses were used to simulate the painful scene in the pilot.
"The breakdown scene in the pilot was accomplished through a combination of computer-generated visual effects and multiple trained horses being used, edited together in post production to depict a highly realistic and heart-wrenching scene," the statement read. "No tranquilizers or drugs of any kind were used to accomplish this scene. Any sequence such as this, or the bumping of horses in a race, was done with mechanical horses or movie horses."
Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice president, is not satisfied with what's been done in the aftermath of the deaths.
"Racing itself is dangerous enough," she told the Associated Press. "This is a fictional representation of something and horses are still dying, and that to me is outrageous."
Anyone familiar with the racing industry knows it can be treacherous for both horses and jockeys. Between 500 and 800 racehorses die every year on the track. A thoroughbred's bones are thinner and more vulnerable to devastating fractures. And while horses don’t run at full racing speed for television, they can still be injured on set.
In 2005, two horses died on the set of "Flicka," a 20th Century Fox family movie starring Tim McGraw. One horse fractured its tibia during a running scene, and another tripped on a lead rope and broke its neck. Still, the AHA said the deaths were unpreventable, and that no one involved in production violated any safety precautions.
Working with horses is clearly a significant risk for filmmakers. The set of "Luck" is equipped with an ambulance for horses and one for jockeys. Horses can only run three times per day, and HBO says veterinarians who specialize in racehorses are present for any running or training. Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, has even said the racing industry could learn from HBO's safety measures.
But for some, stricter regulations won't make up for the lost lives of the two nameless horses. Bloggers and activists have suggested the show be stopped completely. Yet a second season of the show is in the works, which means more worry that another horse's luck will run out.
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