HBO cancels "Luck" after third horse dies

Oscar nominee Nick Nolte in an undated still from HBO's "Luck"HBO announced Wednesday that its horse-racing drama series, "Luck," would be cancelled following the death of a third horse during production. The horse was destroyed after a freak incident earlier this week; while being walked back to its stall by a groom, it reared up, then fell backwards, hitting its head. It had to be euthanized on-site at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, CA, where "Luck" had begun filming its second season.

"Luck," created by respected showrunner David Milch ("Deadwood"), examined the seedier side of the horse-racing world and featured acting luminaries like Nick Nolte, Joan Allen, and Dustin Hoffman, who played a crime kingpin. It has not earned impressive ratings numbers in its first season, but HBO had already renewed it for a second go-round.

Yahoo! Movies: Nolte, Mazursky reminisce about Mike the Dog, "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"

Not everyone was a fan, however – at least, not of the drama's treatment of its equine players. HBO claimed that it coordinated with the American Humane Association and racing experts on the production to exceed accepted safety standards. But during first-season shooting, two other horses suffered injuries while filming racing sequences, and had to be put down. After the second death, the AHA's film and TV unit – the group used by the entertainment industry to protect animal actors – called for a filming shutdown until new protocols for equine safety could be put in place.

These protocols were deemed effective by the film and TV unit's senior VP, Karen Rosa, in February, and filming resumed…but PETA was unimpressed. PETA VP Kathy Guillermo noted at that time that the organization wasn't satisfied with the extra measures, calling the deaths of horses in the service of a fictional narrative "outrageous." After the most recent incident on Tuesday, PETA called both Arcadia police and a humane organization in Pasadena to register complaints.

And according to PETA, whistleblowers had provided accounts of the first two horses' deaths that didn't jibe with HBO's safety claims, including allegations that the animals were unfit and overworked. The PETA site avers that one horse required heavy drugging in order to overcome his arthritis; that the horses used in filming could not distinguish between a "fake" race and a real one, and ran at full throttle on every take; that, although thoroughbred racers are not subjected to even two exercise sessions in a single day, these actors had had to run two full RACES a day; and that the leg fractures each horse suffered had been so "violent" that their leg bones had "shattered."

In whatever manner the deaths may have occurred, HBO, Milch, and co-executive producer Michael Mann ("Heat") chose to shut down production in order to avoid any future tragedies. Their statement in full, from the HBO website:

It is with heartbreak that executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann together with HBO have decided to cease all future production on the series Luck. Safety is always of paramount concern. We maintained the highest safety standards throughout production, higher in fact than any protocols existing in horseracing anywhere with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally in barns at night or pastures. While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future. Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision. We are immensely proud of this series, the writing, the acting, the filmmaking, the celebration of the culture of horses, and everyone involved in its creation.

Hitfix's Alan Sepinwall notes that Luck was a longtime passion project for racing fan Milch, and while it probably pained Milch et al. to see the show axed, "this project was being made by people with a deep, deep passion for horses, at a certain point, they had to say that their art simply wasn't worth the cost of these animals' lives." The AHA issued a statement early on Thursday about the decision, and the organization's efforts to find retirement homes for the remaining horses.

Will the show's cancellation put a brighter spotlight on the dangers inherent in horse-racing (various sources put the number of Thoroughbred racers euthanized each year at around 800), or in using these beautiful but often fragile animals in Hollywood productions ("Ben Hur" and "Heaven's Gate" are just a couple of the movies notorious for endangering and/or killing horses)? Let us know how you think the continuing story will unfold in the comments; we'll keep you posted.

Copyright © 2012 Yahoo Inc.

Elsewhere on Shine Pets:
RIP Yoda, the world's ugliest dog
Webvet: Brazilian sunbathers rescue beached dolphins
Why more pets died on Delta flights in 2011