Luck runs out but racing goes on

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  April 2012:

    SANTA ANITA,  CHELTENHAM–Home Box Office cancelled the made-for-TV Dustin Hoffman/Nick Nolte drama series Luck on March 14, 2012 after three on-set horse fatalities in three years of videotaping at the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia,  California. At Cheltenham,  Glou-cestershire,  United Kingdom,  however,  the annual four-day Festival jumps meet continued before 220,000 spectators despite the deaths of three horses on opening day,  the same day that Luck ended,  and two horse deaths more the next day.
“All five of the horses to die at this year’s event suffered fractured or broken legs and had to be put down,”  reported Katherine Faulkner of the Daily Mail.
Thirty-eight horses have died at Cheltenham since 2000, Animal Aid recounted–nine in 2006 alone.  Altogether,  804 horses have been killed at British race tracks during the past five years, said Animal Aid.
While the Cheltenham meet does not draw nearly the 600 million television viewers claimed by the Grand National,  the most prestigious British jumps meet,  the TV audience is in the hundreds of millions.
Luck,  however,  “despite hefty hype and critical praise, has been a ratings underperformer for HBO, averaging about 625,000 total viewers per episode,”  assessed Lesley Goldberg of Hollywood Reporter.
“Executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann together with HBO have decided to cease all future production on the series Luck,”  HBO said in a prepared release.  “While we maintained the highest safety standards possible,”  HBO said, ” accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future.  Accordingly,  we have reached this difficult decision.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claimed the Luck cancellation as a victory.  “Just one day after PETA sent a complaint to Los Angeles law enforcement urging the agency to investigate the deaths of two horses during the filming of the first season,  we learned that another horse had died on the set,”  PETA posted.  PETA alleged that  HBO, Milch and Mann “refused to tell us anything about the first two horses,  so with the help of caring whistleblowers,  we unearthed the disturbing evidence ourselves.  Both were retired racehorses who wouldn’t understand that when they went through the starting gate on a racetrack,  it was just for a TV show and not a real race.  Outlaw Yodeler was a 5-year-old who hadn’t raced in months and was apparently so sore that he was given a potent cocktail of muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs, including Butorphanol,  a painkiller so strong that it’s often used as an analgesic for horses undergoing some kinds of surgery.  The other horse,  whose name we believe is Marc’s Shadow, was 8 years old and arthritic and had not raced in nearly four years.  Both horses were ‘raced’ twice in one day,  something even fit thoroughbreds would never be subjected to,”  PETA alleged. “Both horses broke down after the second run.”
Responded American Humane Association senior vice president Karen Rosa,  who heads the AHA film and television unit,  “Although retired,  some as recently as 2011,”  the horses used in Luck “were all soundness checked to run.  Also,  running for filming was not as fast as in a real race,  nor as long.  Horses ran from three-eighths to a quarter mile at low speeds,  never ran more than twice per day, and ran only after passing daily soundness checks by licensed veterinarians.” The AHA on-set representatives “made sure horses were adequately rested between all running sequences,”  Rosa told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
The first accident,  Rosa said,  “occurred following the last shot of the last day.  At this time,  there was no indication as to whether the show would go beyond a pilot.  Due to the second death the following year,  while filming the seventh episode,  we insisted that filming cease until enhanced protocols were in place,  including radiographing the horses’ legs.  Some horses were pulled and not allowed to do running scenes.  Those horses were then only used as background.  For the past year there were no further incidents.”
The third horse who died on-set,  Rosa said,  “had just finished a soundness check and was passed by the veterinarian.  The horse was feeling good and in walking back to the barn,  reared up–not uncommon for horses to do–but lost his footing,  flipped, and landed on his crown.  The attending veterinarian assessed that the head trauma was too severe to be treated and made the difficult but humane decision to euthanize the horse. We immediately insisted that filming with horses cease until a full and comprehensive investigation was completed.  This is standard procedure when an animal dies on the set.
“Although the three deaths were unprecedented for a television series,”  Rosa noted,  “in the sport of horseracing, including steeplechase,  far more horses are injured and killed during a year of activity than all species of animals combined in the film industry in a similar period.”
Indeed,  seven of the eight horses who started the eighth race at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town,  West Virginia fell on February 29,  2012.  “The next and final race was canceled, not just because it took so long to clear the track,  but also because too few jockeys were available or willing to ride,”  recounted New York Times horse racing writer Joe Drape and investigative writers Walt Bogdanich,  Dara L. Miles,  and Griffin Palmer in a March 24,  2012 report that put the Luck calamities into perspective.
“On average,  24 horses die each week at racetracks across America,” the New York Times team discovered.  “Many are inexpensive horses racing with little regulatory protection.  The Times found that horses in claiming races,”  the lowest level of racing,  “have a 22% greater chance of breaking down or showing signs of injury than horses in higher grade races.
“In 2008,”  the New York Times team recalled,  “after a Kentucky Derby horse,  Eight Belles,  broke two ankles on national television and was euthanized,  Congress extracted promises from the racing industry to make the sport safer.  But a computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races,  along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews,  shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.”
According to the New York Times team,  “Trainers at U.S. tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times,” since the Eight Belles fatality,  “a figure that vastly understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are actually tested. During the same time frame,  “6,600 horses broke down or showed signs of injury.  Since 2009, the incident rate has not only failed to go down,  it has risen slightly,”  the Times team charged. U.S. race tracks from 2009 through 2011 averaged 5.2 horse injuries per 1,000 starts,  the New York Times analysis learned.  “By contrast,”  the Times team wrote,  “Wood-bine Racetrack in Toronto, which year after year has one of the lowest breakdown rates in North America, had an incident rate of only 1.4” per 1,000 starts.
The Times reporters linked the high U.S. race horse breakdown rate to the introduction of casino gambling at race tracks, “resulting in higher purses but also providing an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.”
The Times team found that five of the six tracks with the highest incident rates in 2011 were “racinos,”  as race tracks with casino operations are called.  The two worst were Ruidoso,  14.1 horse injuries per 1,000 starts,  and Zia Park,  13.3–the latter after management spent $80,000 to resurface the track after the track had 11.9 horse injuries per 1,000 starts in 2010.
The Times team noted that “New Mexico recently became the first state to temporarily ban all horses from racing on clenbuterol, a drug that aids respiration,  but has been widely abused because it can build muscle.”  But the Times writers also pointed out that the New Mexico racing commission has “had its embarrassments.  One former investigator faces trial on charges of stealing horses while working at the commission.  A trainer’s doping violation was dismissed because the assistant attorney general handling the case neglected to show up in court.  And the commission had to drop charges against Ramon O. Gonzalez Sr. for drugging 10 horses because it forgot to file the proper paperwork,  according to the state attorney general’s office.”  In a separate case,  Gonzalez,  his son,  and his nephew were in January 2010 indicted by an Albuquerque federal grand jury after Ramon O. Gonzalez Sr. “was arrested while pulling a horse trailer that the authorities said was carrying 26 kilograms of cocaine and 500 pounds of marijuana,”  the Times team noted.
The New York Times report came four months after Vancouver Sun reporter Larry Pynn investigated the deaths of 20 horses in 20 months at Hastings Race course in Vancouver.  “Thirteen horses were euthanized after leg,  shoulder or pelvis fractures,”  Pynn learned. “Other deaths were related to medical problems such as pulmonary edema and hemorrhage,  perforated intestinal ulcers,  foot infections,  and brain disease.  One horse no longer used for racing had a colon tear,”  found necropsies done by the British Columbia Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford.
Thoroughbreds race only about once a month,  Great Canadian Gaming Corporation vice-president Howard Blank told Pynn.  But, Blank said,  the upper body weight of a thoroughbred race horse is “so massive compared with the little sticks it runs on,”  that “It’s like putting a Corvette engine in a Volkswagen.  It has amazing speed and power,  but if we kept doing it without maintaining meticulous care,  the Volkswagen would disintegrate as it was running.” –Merritt Clifton
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