Luck's Tough Love: Could David Milch's Unflinching HBO Series Assist in Horse Racing's Revival?
Patrick Reed has contributed to several projects for the Lear Center over the last 10 years and also works for Thoroughbred Times in Lexington, KY.
One week after the post below, Luck's producers and HBO cancelled further production of the series, two episodes into shooting its second season. The press reported that another Thoroughbred was euthanized on-set, upping the total to three for the show's duration. The latest horse fatality reportedly occurred away from the racetrack as the animal was being led to the barn area at Santa Anita - an accident that could have happened in any situation, at any location, and one that did not come about as a result of simulating a race or any other high-intensity activity. Speculation immediately began to percolate as to whether the accident provided an opening for producers to halt filming of a series that had failed to draw strong ratings, but official statements by Milch, Mann, and the cable channel brass expressed regret over the decision and stressed that their commitment to equine welfare was absolute.
At any rate, the promise of Luck and its willingness to present an unflinching but affectionate portrait of contemporary horse racing to viewers will not be fully realized. The series will now likely be remembered more for its fine acting performances throughout the cast and especially for providing icons Hoffman and Nolte emotionally complex characters to inhabit as their careers wind down. As for horse racing, the search continues for the next gambling innovation, pop culture tie-in, big-event promotion, or - best of all - a new star on the track to recapture the interest of a general public that has, over the past quarter-century, largely abandoned the sport. Optimism remains a constant presence in the industry - despite all of the negative trends, there's always a next race.
Six years ago last week, a two-year-old by Forestry sold for the highest price ever at a Thoroughbred auction - $16-million at the select Fasig-Tipton Florida sale. The price (a result of a bidding war between two titanic international breeding and racing operations) easily surpassed the previous record of $13.1-million set in 1985 and in retrospect was the most egregious indicator of unsustainable excess within the industry - particularly in the breeding sector - that paralleled the overall economic insanity of the late 'aughts and portended the collapse to come. (The regally bred colt, later named The Green Monkey after a Barbados golf course, retired to stud in 2009 after racing three times without a win and with career earnings a shade above $10,000).
2008 brought a bracing across-the-board correction, and the U.S. Thoroughbred industry has been grasping for a lifeline ever since. While ample evidence exists that the bottom has been reached in the auction market over the past year and a half, and stallion fees have plummeted from their ridiculous heights in the mid-2000s to more affordable levels, the crucial long-term problem plaguing the industry remains: horse racing continues to lose fan support to other forms of entertainment. Thoroughbred racing may never regain its status as one of the three leading American pastimes that it shared with baseball and boxing during the middle of the last century, but currently the challenge facing the industry is much more basic, and dire: finding a way to carve out and maintain a foothold as a viable entertainment option against an endless, regenerating tide of slot machines, "SportsCenter" updates, handheld device games, and other touchstones of our instant-gratification zeitgeist.
Horse racing's steady decline in popularity is easy to understand in this context - because at its core,