The Horseman's Answer to 'Luck'

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A filmmaker presents a more realistic look into "the sport of kings."

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Last week, when I happily reviewed HBO's Luck, I bemoaned the otherwise wonderful series' failure to better tell the kinder, gentler side of the story about horse racing. The side where sweet people not only work their butts off but keep their desperation a helluva lot quieter than it is in Hollywood's stylish portrayal. A lot of horse people agreed with that assessment--I am still getting emails--but we all were left with the questions: How would Hollywood find these people, and would any potential viewer even care?

I cannot answer the second part of that question--it is way beyond my depth of knowledge about why people watch what they watch. But I think I can begin to answer it. Last Wednesday, I received a DVD from  Kelly Spencer, who is a photographer, nascent filmmaker, and director of marketing and communications at Grand River Raceway, a harness racing track up in Elora, Ontario. Turns out that Spencer led a very cool project last August 6th to document "a day in the life" of the harness horse industry in North America.

The DVD that Spencer sent me is the same film she debuted Saturday night at the O'Brien Awards, harness racing's equivalent of the Oscars, held every year near Toronto. The crowd went wild, from what I am told, not because Spencer's volunteer chroniclers are likely to be the next David Milch or Michael Mann but because the brief story they shot about their horses showed the true highs and lows of the sport--not the often exaggerated ones you'll see so much of in Luck. A Day In The Life is short and sweet, almost a response to Luck.

Here's a clip from Spencer's work:



The scene at the end of this clip, with Stephanie Horner looking into the camera at the end of a long and frustrating day, dead tired but still game, is really what horse racing is about when you break it down and strip it of its hype. All over North America, hard-working people like Horner live their lives at the mercy of their racehorses and the horse industry, honestly seeking out a living. Luck only hints at these people in its first season--like the gorgeous horses themselves they are mostly props, in the background.

Horner not sympathetic enough? Don't think you could build a narrative around her life and relationships? Then how about the story of  Bruce Gilkinson and his Cat Sass Stable? He's the poor guy in Spencer's documentary who is on his way to the track, horse all loaded up in the back, when he learns from the track that his horse has been scratched because her owner hasn't properly filed her licensing paperwork. Any trainer in the world will tell you, that's horse racing. And the look on Gilkinson's face when he tells us this is priceless.

David Milch told Lenny Shulman of the Blood-Horse magazine last week that he hoped that people who didn't know much about racing would be convinced by Luck "that it's the greatest game in the world." He also says his series is a "love letter to the game." On the next page of Milch's love letter--Shulman tells us already there will be a second season of the show--he should show a little bit of that love to a few of the magnificent people who reside in the middle of the story about the sport of kings. They deserve it. And they watch HBO.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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