TV Imitates Life: Two Horses Die While Filming HBO's 'Luck'

The American Humane Society was present on set. HBO claims all safety protocols were taken. What went wrong?

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race horses running at race track
Seven hundred fifty thoroughbreds die each year on race tracks, or two horses per day, according to industry statistics. (Photo: Sports Illustrated/Getty)

HBO’s new drama Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman as an ex-con mobster and Nick Nolte as a horse trainer, is a bit too realistic when it comes to capturing the tragedy of thoroughbred racing.

As Forbes reports, two horses died during the filming of the pilot and another in the seventh episode. The horses stumbled during racing sequences, suffered severe fractures, and were euthanized.

The American Humane Society (AHA) is responsible for safety standards on film and television sets. After the second horse’s death, the AHA called a halt to filming at the Santa Ana racetrack to revise its obviously inadequate safety protocols. Improvements include using radiography to make sure the horses’ legs are sound and hiring another veterinarian. The AHA also removed its familiar “no animals were harmed” statement from the episodes’ credits.

Before shooting began, PETA claims it “repeatedly reached out” to HBO to offer safety advice, but was refused. “Racing itself is dangerous enough,” said PETA vice president Kathy Guillerm. “This is a fictional representation of something and horses are still dying, and that to me is outrageous.”

HBO, of course, refuted claims of carelessness. “From the very outset of this project, the safety of the animals was of paramount concern to us,” the network claimed in a statement. “Recent assertions of lax attitudes or negligence could not be further from the truth.”

The BBC reports that PETA is now in discussions with HBO about “how to prevent more deaths” on its show.

Alternative sources of gambling, government management of tracks, the scandals of drugged animals, and the untimely death of Eight Belles immediately after the 2008 Kentucky Derby have all contributed to waning public interest in horse racing.

Perhaps the controversy over the senseless death of two horses on Luck will help hasten the decline of this already dying industry.