Tough Luck

One of my favorite things to do, when I became of appropriate age, was to go see the horseraces at Garden State Park, the racetrack near where I grew up in New Jersey. Seeing the horses, analyzing their histories, the trainers and jockeys, it was all very easy to get swept up in the excitement of the race and the lure of picking winners. The Beloved loves horseracing, too, and is even more of a student of the sport than me. We still love to enjoy a day at the races here in California.

So, we were really excited this past year to watch the new HBO drama “Luck” from the power team of David Milch (“Deadwood”) and Michael Mann. The show starred Dustin Hoffman and a slew of other great actors (Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, that guy that played Dumbledore). It focused on the lives and fortunes of the people around Santa Anita, the racetrack just outside of Los Angeles: big wigs, grizzled track veterans, jockeys, trainers, and even a couple of the horses.

Great Cast

Many reviews called the storytelling opaque, and I’ll agree that “Luck” demanded the attention of its viewers. There was little exposition explaining exactly what was going on during training sessions or discussions of wagering strategies, so I can see where some folks felt adrift in the dialog. Characters shrugged and mumbled. There was little oratory. Glances and body language were as important as dialog.  Santa Anita in a gauzy morning light was a thing of beauty. The horseracing scenes were electric, making the viewer feel as if they were right there among the pounding hooves, and captured the both the strength and grace of thoroughbred horses.

Race Footage

“Luck” was beautifully shot, skillfully written, and wonderfully acted. Was? Yes, was. “Luck” was suspended by the Milch and Mann in March after a third horse was euthanized due to injuries during production, and HBO cancelled the show shortly thereafter. “Luck” ambitiously tried to realistically portray horseracing, and despite what I’m sure what was every effort, they were unable to keep injuries from occurring during their choreographed races. I get it– at that point you have to hang them up.

We finished watching it this weekend and one thing I can do is say if you have any interest in great storytelling, top-rate acting, and gorgeous cinematography stream it, or rent it. The one season doesn’t have a big cliffhanger and the story arcs’ conclusions finish such that the whole thing was very satisfying — and in this day of multi-season arcs, it’s sometimes nice to know that there’s a good story in one season.

Give it a shot.


14 thoughts on “Tough Luck

  1. I’ll probably get around to watching this as I do most horse-racing stories…Gram used to own racehorses (and some ran in the Kentucky Derby before I was born). She took me to Fairmont Park a few times as a kid. We always went down to the paddock first, to see which horse/ jockey we liked, then placed our bets (and yes, they let a shorty place a bet back then!).

  2. I’m a horse racing fan, but the stories following the filming of this show disturbed me so much that I’m hesitant to support it by renting the DVD or watching it on HBO. Professional horse trainers and owners spend so much time and money in producing a race-worthy thoroughbred, they take extra steps to ensure their horse will be safe while racing. The producers of “Luck” however were on a budget and a timetable, so they purchased second-string horses in questionable health to film the racing scenes.

    I don’t doubt the show is good—just the cast would draw me in—but I love horses too much to watch them being mistreated.

    • HG — well, all the reports I’ve read pointed out that the methods used by the producers were approved by the AHA and representatives from the Humane Society. Now, it doesn’t surprise me that PETA blasted the show, but they would probably blast the use of the dog in The Artist.

      Really the question ought to be is: was the rate of breakdown of horses more during the filming than during a regular season at Santa Anita? Last year, there were 3.7 deaths at Santa Anita per 1000 starts. That would mean that Luck would have had to have run ~800 shots for the same rate. That seems high, but I bet it was in the hundreds of shots. If so, that means the rates of breakdowns might be similar and that Luck was cancelled because it’s higher profile than “regular” horseracing, maybe not because it’s a lot more dangerous.

      Wish I’d looked that up before I wrote the post…

  3. Your writing is grand, Steve. Loved the review, and I know what it is like to find a great show – only to have it pulled after a season. Your description reminds me of many British shows I watch. You need to really pay attention to the scene and body cues, because the dialogue doesn’t always explain things fully. I love the style, though.
    All that said, I hate that horses lost their life for Hollywood. Just like HG mentioned, I am a horse lover. I’m sorry they continued filming after one horse died. Wasteful and cruel, in my opinion.

    • Thanks LD — we’re old school here at The Aerie. We watch shows without a laptop and/or smartphone in our hands and try to pay attention… :)

      See the comment to HG’s comment as to whether the rates of breakdown were higher for the show than for “regular” racing. My guess is they were — though probably not by a lot. Horses breaking down is something that racing enthusiasts have to get used to — or at least become desensitized to, I suppose.

  4. I’ve only been to Santa Anita once and I only live 45 minutes away. We had a great time and I bet a few races for fun. Too bad about the show Luck, with all the horses dying that they had to put a close to the show.

    • Real — yeah, I think there was no way to sustain it. I suppose that they could have gone to Las Vegas for a setting, but I think that would have changed the show too much. We’re thinking of going to Santa Anita for The Breeder’s Cup in the fall.

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