Were the Race Horses on “Luck” Mistreated? One Equine Veterinarian Weighs In

Horses racing
Courtesy of Dr. Scott E. Palmer

The HBO horse racing drama Luck has been canceled in the wake of an accident in the barn area of Santa Anita Park, which resulted in the death of a race horse used in the production. During the first season of filming in 2010 and 2011, two horses were injured on the track during filming and were euthanized. As an equine veterinarian and someone who has extensive experience with the racing world, I’ll admit that I never liked Luck, as it showed only the seamier side of horse racing, and didn’t depict all the people who honestly do their best and who love the sport and the animals. But that’s not what the firestorm is about.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has criticized the production, stating that “safety guidelines used in filming failed to prevent the deaths, so clearly they were inadequate.” Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice president, remarked that “three horses have now died, and all the evidence we have gathered points to sloppy oversight, the use of unfit, injured horses, and disregard for the treatment of thoroughbreds.”

Clearly the health of the horses is what is most important. As I understand it, the filming of Luck was done under supervision from California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) veterinarians, and safety protocols created by the film and TV unit of the American Humane Association were observed. Some of these protocols included a no-drug policy that was enforced through random testing of the horses used in production, physical and radiographic examination of the horses prior to filming, and total access to the medical records of the horses featured in the show.

Daily care of the horses was provided by qualified grooms and trainers licensed by the CHRB. As is the case with all fatalities on the racetrack, CHRB is conducting a thorough investigation of this latest accident, which will include a postmortem examination and toxicology testing.

The death of three horses over a three-year period of filming is sad and unfortunate. This latest injury, in which a horse reared and fell over backward while being walked back to the barn by a trained and experienced groom, was a freak accident. While tragic, such accidents can and do occur in any stable environment — and they are impossible to prevent in all circumstances.

As responsible stewards, we are obligated to minimize risk to our animals and to ourselves, but the reality is that, even with our best efforts, we cannot completely eliminate risk in life, especially when horses are involved. Guillermo’s logic, suggesting that safety guidelines were inadequate because they failed to prevent these deaths, is flawed.

We will know more when the CHRB completes its investigation, but until it's proven otherwise, it seems to me that the individuals responsible for the production of Luck took appropriate and reasonable precautions to prevent animal injury. Without evidence to the contrary — and without being familiar with the level of care and scrutiny that these particular horses were under — I think that statements in the press suggesting animal cruelty are both irresponsible and agenda-driven.

Dr. Scott E. Palmer, V.M.D., is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. He is a hospital director and staff surgeon at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. Dr. Palmer is a past president of the New Jersey Association of Equine Practitioners, as well as a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. In addition to serving as the chair of the AAEP Racing Committee, Dr. Palmer has also served as a member of the broadcast team for CBS and NBC Sports, ESPN, The Fox Network and the Learning Channel, for harness and thoroughbred racing events.

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