End of ‘Luck’ and Racing’s Future
By JIM SQUIRES
As has happened many times, a dead horse has set back the hopes of thoroughbred racing of ever again becoming a major sport.
This time, it was a movie horse that flipped over backward at Santa Anita last week before the filming of the HBO series "Luck," a marvelous character study of the industry that some optimists hoped would help attract new people to the sport.
These same aspirations have been dashed repeatedly in recent years when horses competing in the Breeders’ Cup and in Triple Crown races broke down and had to be euthanized before television audiences considerably larger than the half-million people who were still watching "Luck" after seven episodes.
The show was canceled Wednesday after a third horse died during production, but "Luck" was probably imperiled anyway because the writing and production genius of David Milch was lost on most of its audience.
As usual in the wake of a highly publicized death of a racehorse, the sport’s critics are gloating while the leaderless industry hunkers down, thankful that "Luck," too, has broken down before it could do more image damage. Frank Stronach, the owner of Santa Anita and one of the world’s leading breeders, said he planned to meet with the show’s producers in an effort to influence a more appealing presentation of his businesses.
Strong doses of reality do not go down easy. But the truth is, racing has owners a lot worse than the character Ace Bernstein, trainers even more irascible and uncommunicative than Turo Escalante and bettors just as appalling as the Forays. These were our people, like it our not, and expecting Milch to sugarcoat it is as ridiculous as believing competitive athletes won’t get injured before your eyes or that you can be around animals for a long time without watching one of them die. When a racecar driver is killed in public, it only draws a bigger crowd. When a horse dies in the hands of a human, it drives people away. I know a woman who quit watching "Luck" after the first episode because it showed a horse that broke down.
As any horseman knows, sometimes a scared horse flips over backward and hits its head on the ground. It has nothing to do with incompetent handling or inhumane treatment. Sometimes horses do it on their own – not out of fear, but while playing or racing with one another.
If the future of horse racing depends on the prevention of fractured skulls and broken leg bones, racing might as well shut down today. The fact is, the thoroughbred racing industry is not going to have any luck or much of a future until it quits turning a blind eye to its major problem – drugs. If two other horses had not already broken down during the filming of "Luck," a filly’s flipping over on the way back to its stall would not have halted production. Both were put down after performing on the track in racing scenes, not full-fledged races but the shorter sprints used to stitch a movie race together. And both injuries were because of bones no longer capable of the stress they had just endured.
On the day "Luck" was canceled, the industry was again ballyhooing the return of "the sale horse" and the extraordinary profits connected with $500,000 and $800,000 prices being paid for horses at a Florida 2-year-old in training auction. Barely 24 months old and younger, these horses invariably had earned their value by running an eighth of a mile in 10 1/2 seconds or less, or a quarter-mile in 20 seconds and change. They did this after weeks of training for that one run down the track at speeds and levels of stress never again required for a successful racing career.
As is routine, some of them had probably already been inducted into a regimen of a diuretic and performance-enhancing drug known to leach calcium out their bones every time it is administered, even though a horse’s bones do not mature until age 6.
Because of unsoundness, Animal Kingdom, the winner of the 2011 Derby, has run only one allowance race since, and this week he was benched again for at least three months while he recovers from a stress fracture. Already this year some of the most promising young aspirants for the 2012 Triple Crown have been sidelined by stress fractures. And there by the wayside along with them are all the reform efforts to curtail the industry’s obsession with speed.
It is a shame that Milch, a knowledgeable horse owner who loves the game, and the impressive cadre of expert advisers he had assembled, didn’t get far enough along to deal with the drug issue, along with a few other horror stories that need telling. Then there would be less mystery about why our retired racehorses can’t even stand the stress of a short movie run and a greater understanding of why things need to be changed.