Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Horse deaths part of life at tracks

But losses force end of HBO show set at racetrack

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LOS ANGELES -- Horse racing has long withstood the deaths of its skittish, injury-prone thoroughbreds. Hollywood proved it lacks the stomach for it.

HBO abruptly cancelled its racetrack drama series Luck this past week after three horses used in the production were injured and euthanized during 10 months of filming in the last two years.

The abrupt fall of Luck, which will end its single-season run on March 25, reveals the chasm between the racing and entertainment industries.

At the track, a horse puts its life on the line so gamblers can stake $2 or more to win, place or show, with the industry and fans accepting the danger to animals and jockeys as a harsh part of the bargain.

With movies and TV, which offer the on-screen vow that "no animals were harmed" in the making of make-believe, consumers have scant tolerance for harm to any creature great or small.

"More people are pet owners than ever before. More people have access to information about animals... and care more about them," said Karen Rosas, senior vice-president of the American Humane Association's TV and film unit that monitors animal safety for more than 2,000 productions annually.

During the past five years, the association encountered only one horse death outside of Luck, on the 2007 movie 3:10 to Yuma, Rosas said. Losing three horses on a single project was "unprecedented," she added.

The racing world stands in sharp contrast in both the measure of loss and reaction to it.

Two horses died in Britain's Grand National steeplechase meet last year, and four the year before, but the April event will proceed as it has since the 1830s. The 2008 Kentucky Derby euthanization of a captivating filly, Eight Belles, clouded but didn't derail the event that marks its 137th running in May.

Last week, five horses died in the first two days of the U.K.'s Cheltenham Festival steeplechase. Outrage erupted, as it had after previous multiple deaths in the prestigious meet, but it's yet to be scuttled.

In U.S. racing, there's approximately one horse fatality per 500 starts, according to Dr. Rick Arthur, medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. He cited the Equine Industry Database posted online by the Jockey Club, which supports thoroughbred breeding and racing.

The losses on Luck provoked public dismay and pro-and-con debate about racing itself.

"I am usually an admirer of both HBO and (series creator) David Milch, but from the sounds of it, this is a tragedy that should have been avoided. Animals are not props," actor Sean Vincent Biggins of Los Angeles posted Friday on his Facebook page.

Thoroughbred experts and those in racing say their acceptance of mortality in racing stems from an understanding of the animals powering the sport.

Richard Mandella -- a Hall of Fame trainer at Santa Anita Park, 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 misfortune.


-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2012 B7

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