HBO's 'Luck' canceled because racing deaths unacceptable
"Luck" was supposed to be the TV show that brought horse racing back into the public consciousness, nearly four decades after Secretariat appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The writers and actors did their jobs -- as a dedicated railbird, I’ve never seen the grandstand, the backstretch and the jockey’s room portrayed so accurately.
Unfortunately, "Luck’s" legacy will probably be an impression that horse racing is a deadly sport, when in fact, it’s safer than ever for the animals.
But this memo from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suggests what I suspected when I heard about the horse deaths: The prestige HBO drama was almost certainly using retired, even broken-down, Thoroughbreds for the racing scenes, and running them twice a day. Thoroughbreds in their prime are a) at the racetrack, not on movie sets, and b) too valuable to race more than once every few weeks.
For the safety of those pampered horses, in 2006, the California Horse Racing Board ordered every track in the state to replace its dirt with Polytrack, a synthetic surface composed of polypropylene fibers, rubber and silica sand, all beneath a wax coating. Polytrack is gentler on a horse’s joints, and studies since its implementation have shown it reduced racing fatalities from 2.14 per 1,000 starts to 1.55.
Kentucky’s Turfway Park installed the first Polytrack in 2005 after a meet in which 24 horses died. The next year, running on rubber, only three horses broke down. Arlington Park, outside Chicago, cut fatalities in half with a synthetic surface. On the other hand, 12 horses died during last year’s 37-day Del Mar meet.
The Triple Crown tracks -- Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont -- have stuck with traditional dirt. Which is unfortunate, because the switch to Polytrack was hurried along by the death of a famous racehorse, Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who broke down in the first strides of the 2006 Preakness and was later euthanized.
Two years later, Eight Belles broke both front ankles after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, and was given the fatal injection right on the Churchill Downs track. Thoroughbreds are fragile animals, carrying enormous bodies on legs as spindly as a Kenyan marathoner’s. Compare the stocky legs and platter-size feet of a Percheron or a Clydesdale, and you’ll see why racehorses are so easily broken.
After their racing careers are over, horses rarely end up at the glue factory. Horse slaughter has been banned in the United States.
Ferdinand, winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby, was dispatched to an abattoir after his stud career ended in Japan. Since then, horsemen have donated a voluntary “Ferdinand fee” to fund racehorse retirements, and included a “buy back” clause when selling stallions to foreign breeders.
In the first half of the 20th century, when racing was one of America’s Big Three sports, along with baseball and boxing, most fans had ridden horses on farms, or seen them pulling carts down city streets. They understood the animals’ weaknesses and were not as shocked by racing fatalities.
It’s a sport with agrarian roots, a product of an era when our relationship with animals was at once closer and less sentimental. It was acceptable to ride a horse into battle, work him 12 hours a day pulling a plow … or run him to death on a racetrack.
As the show's cancellation reminds us, we can’t treat horses that way anymore.
-- Ted McClelland
(McCelland is the author of "Horseplayers: Life at the Track," a memoir of a year spent at the races.)
Photo: Barbaro wins the 2006 Kentucky Derby, but the colt was euthanized after sustaining an injury weeks later at the Preakness. Credit: Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press