The first thing I thought when I read that the HBO series "Luck" was being canceled after the death of the third horse on the set was:
Why hadn't I heard about the deaths of the first two horses?
After all, news of an animal dying in the production of a TV series about horse racing - starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte - surely would have caught people's attention.
Well, acclaimed author Buzz Bissinger explained why in a column this week for The Daily Beast.
In Bissinger's opinion "Luck" would still be in production had it not been for the dogged efforts of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to expose the incidents and call for a cruelty investigation.
Thanks to tips from workers at Santa Anita racetrack where the show was being filmed PETA blew the whistle on the fact two horses, Outlaw Yodeler and Marc's Shadow, broke down while mock racing for the show. A third reared and fell over backwards while being led to his stable from the track.
The other question I had was, where were these race horses coming from? PETA supplied the answers: sadly, they were washed up, arthritic racehorses, drugged up to ease the pain of inflammation in their limbs.
The show found them racing on a penny-ante track in California - the last stop before the slaughterhouse for more than few horses.
The horses had not been raced regularly or even regularly worked were suddenly being asked to go at speed twice a day.
Where was the American Humane Association, the group which exists to monitor the treatment of animals on film and TV production shoots? Where were the professional horsemen and women who did the riding for the show?
Bissinger provides some details in the first two victims:
Outlaw Yodeler, the first to be put down, was used April 30, 2010, for a first-season episode. According to a study of 754,932 starts by the Jockey Club, Outlaw Yodeler fit two of the three factors deemed to be the most significant in risk of injury: having numerous starts one to six months before being used again and not having started in the past 15 to 30 days. In 2009 Outlaw Yodeler had raced 12 times, a very heavy workload, and there was a 97-day lapse between his last race and his use in the filming of a mock race.
According to a necropsy report filed, four pharmaceutical drugs were found in Outlaw Yodeler’s system, an astonishing amount. A California board-certified veterinarian on the set maintains they were administered to the horse after it was injured to calm the animal down. It makes sense. But a medical expert for PETA examining the necropsy report said some of those drugs must have been in the horse’s system before the accident. As Lindsay Waskey, the counsel for PETA, put it in a letter to the Pasadena Humane Society and the Los Angeles district attorney’s office on March 12, the presence of drugs suggests “Outlaw Yodeler was suffering from severe pain and inflammation. It also raises the possibility that he was not raced more frequently in 2010 due to injury or because he was physically unfit to participate in such strenuous events.”
About a year later, around March 28, 2011, an 8-year-old thoroughbred named Marc’s Shadow was used for the filming of a mock race. Its last start had been in November 2007, when it had finished ninth. Whistleblowers on the scene told PETA that the horse was arthritic, and the necropsy report noted degenerative arthrosis in both the right and left carpus. During the mock race, one of the bones in Marc Shadow’s right leg exploded into 19 pieces, some of which poked through skin.
There has been a great deal of discussion of the "unwanted horse" in recent months, particularly with the passage of the federal appropriations bill that for the first time in four years provides funding for inspectors at slaughter plants.
With that news, pro-slaughter advocates, like ex-United Horsemen official Sue Wallis, have been shopping around the country for sites to reopen a plant in the U.S. (With no operating plants here, U.S. horses by the tens of thousands are shipped to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico and their meat shipped to Europe and Japan.)
The thoroughbred - and standardbred - racing industry carries the bulk of the burden. Some 34,000 registered thoroughbreds are foaled each year. Like the millions of children who play recreational soccer, only a handful go on to play at the college level, let alone play professionally or compete olympic events.
So too with racehorses. It doesn't mean they can't have second careers. As we have seen in Pennsylvania through the work of Philadelphia Park's (PARX)pioneering program, Turning for Home, which has found rehabilitated and placed 750 ex-racehorses, or CANTER, which provides a safe route for horses off the track to find homes. Among the second careers for some ex-race horses: polo pony, like those who performed so brilliantly for the talented human athletes Cowtown/Work to Ride polo team from Philadelphia which last week won its second national championship.
Also last week the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the New York Racing Association announced the launch of a $250,000 program, "TAKE 2" that will both help fund retired racehorse training and adoption programs, through the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund, and promote the use of thoroughbreds in horse shows.
You might wonder why thoroughbreds need promoting in the horse show ring. In the past decade thoroughbreds, once the horse of choice in show jumping and three-day eventing, fell out of favor particularly at high level events as wealthy equestrians began importing other breeds from Europe for competition here.
In order to try to reintroduce thoroughbreds to the upper level horse showing world, the two racing groups are sponsoring "thoroughbred only" shows at top tier locations in NY and NJ.