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,
the horse racing experience is a live experience, one that loses a great deal of its considerable appeal in electronic-media translation. Simulcasting may be the financial backbone of the modern racing business model, and online wagering its only current source of dependable revenue growth, but lifetime, devoted horse racing fans are birthed at the racetrack, plain and simple. There's no other place like it.
The subculture of the racetrack shares many dubious characteristics with contemporary society-at-large - fierce competition, double-crossing avarice, an irrational belief in good fortune - but also exhibits a good deal of generosity, camaraderie, and perhaps most important of all a bedrock equanimity. This is most evident on the backstretch but exists on the gambling side as well, and is borne out of the centuries-old devotion to routine that is at the heart of the relationship between human and horse. All of these qualities have made horse racing a rich source of material for artistic expression, of course, and the sport continues to inspire literary types ranging from Craig Finn to recent National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon to chronicle the vagaries of the racing (and gambling) life.
Contemporary film and television treatments have been less exciting, whether one considers family-friendly Hollywood treatments of racing's golden era or silly Super Bowl sugared-water commercials featuring gigantic celebrity jockeys (and touting a product, as it turns out, that bankrolls one of the sport's up-and-coming owners, Mike Repole). Thus, it was with substantial anticipation that the horse racing world received confirmation last year that production was greenlighted for David Milch's Luck, an HBO serial set in the present day and filmed on location at picturesque Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California.
Now through six of its nine first-season episodes, and already renewed for a second season, Luck received ample buildup by HBO's unparalleled publicity machine last fall, greatly assisted by tireless press appearances from Milch, director/producer Michael Mann, and lead actor Dustin Hoffman. All of this exposure was much welcomed by horse racing's own media chorus, who have lacked a major film or television tie-in since Seabiscuit came and went nearly ten years ago and are currently seeking a racetrack star to celebrate following the sensational Zenyatta's retirement in 2010 (Santa Anita, in particular, continues to benefit from its association with Luck, touting the show on billboards featuring SoCal jockey and supporting actor Chantal Sutherland and drawing series regulars to the track for racing events).
Despite the goodwill going in, reaction from the racing community to Luck was conflicted after the pilot episode was aired in a sneak preview last December, and remained so after the first couple of episodes ran during the series' regular Sunday time slot. Perhaps not surprisingly, venerable industry figures such as racing partnership pioneer W. Cothran "Cot" Campbell decried the program's apparent emphasis on the underbelly of the racing world, a sentiment echoed by many commentators in racing's burgeoning social network sphere. This initial response was in part due to a drawn-out recreation of a racehorse breaking down shown in the pilot, a plot point that was exacerbated by the revelation that two horses were euthanized during the first season of production.
Six episodes in, Luck is in racing-railbird parlance passing the quarter pole and heading into the homestretch... and a far more nuanced portrait of its fictional racing universe has emerged. The foursome of 'degenerate' gamblers who struck it rich with a Pick Six score in the pilot have bought a racehorse, and committed a portion of their bounty to the costs of its daily upkeep (the scene in which the gamblers' financial responsibilities are made clear is a succinct corrective to the widespread misconception that horse racing as it exists today is still a "Sport of Kings"). Meanwhile, the series' most compelling character, ethically challenged trainer Turo Escalante (John Ortiz), begins to rediscover his professional pride and refocus his energies on horsemanship when the star of his stable is injured.
Several other characters - the struggling apprentice jockey (Tom Payne), the veteran trainer haunted by tragedy (Nick Nolte) - appear destined to less uplifting fates, and Luck promises plenty of Deadwood-style double-crossing intrigue through its principal storyline focusing on gangster Hoffman's carefully plotted revenge. Still, many of the early critiques of Luck from a horse racing vantage point have evaporated. The series has done a fine job presenting esoteric aspects of racing and training to its audience, benefiting from Milch's expertise as a gambler and owner as well as the presence of Turf writer Jay Hovdey on the staff. Furthermore, the industry's many successful charitable organizations are spotlighted via Joan Allen's character's devotion to operating a foundation specializing in prison inmate rehabilitation using horses.
More than anything else, though, it is through Luck's visual aesthetic - masterfully shaped by Mann - where the series' true affection for horse racing can be fully appreciated. Luck's menacing, Massive Attack-scored opening credit sequence and its reliance on dark, anonymous interior surroundings present one side of the gambling lifestyle: the predatory, "dark night of the soul" motif evident in such films as Rounders and Croupier. These scenes are expertly shot but break no new ground.
By contrast, the on-location footage at Santa Anita gives Luck much-needed continuity and a sense of place in the horse stables that celebrates the ritual pleasures of caring for these magnificent animals and molding them into athletes. And refreshingly, Luck goes beyond rote depictions of the racetrack grandstand as an island of lost souls. That desperation exists, to be sure, but Luck also offers an appealing glimpse into the intellectually challenging endeavor of handicapping horse races and traces the friendships such activity can create. These elements collide in the racing sequences, which have provided Luck's most captivating and uplifting moments so far.
Winding down its first season, Luck is well on pace to create a portrait of horse racing that is more full and accurate than any other in film or television history. For an American Thoroughbred industry increasingly reliant on slot machine income to support its racing product and one that is still coming to terms with marketplace reality in the breeding shed and sales ring six years after The Green Monkey's irrational exuberance, the harsh yet hopeful stories of the racing world on display in Luck could, if effectively marketed, draw potential fans to the track - and the horses will take it from there.