R.I.P., HBO's 'Luck'

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Did the network cancel the show because of animal safety or low audience numbers? Either way, it's a blow to people who love horses.

HBO

For years, horse racing fans all over the world had drooled over the idea that HBO, perennial resident of the top shelf of television entertainment, would deign to produce a show about the Sport of Kings. We talked about it and talked about it and talked about it and promoted it ceaselessly within the industry. And when Luck premiered a few months ago, the beloved work of David Milch and Michael Mann, we all dutifully wrote our reviews and then sat back to see how the rest of America would react to the series.

Turns out, Luck didn't make it much past the quarter pole. On Wednesday we learned, like some great cosmic joke, that the series has been cancelled, effectively immediately, even as it was in production for its second season. The tribunes at HBO said late Wednesday that they pulled the plug on Luck because three horses had accidentally died during the filming of the first two seasons and that the show's executives could not promise that more tragic accidents would not happen in the future. No Luckthey reckoned, is better than bad luck.

Put another way, you can't produce a show about horses that doesn't adequately protect the horses which are portrayed in the show. In an era when there are legitimate concerns about the health and safety of real racehorses, such risk-taking was just asking for trouble with the series' natural fan base—horse-lovers. I mean, in the very first episode of Luck, before it had attached itself to its audience, Mann and Milch included a scene where a horse had to be "put down" on the track. Talk about bad karma. For the record, HBO said this: 

Safety is always of paramount concern. We maintained the highest safety standards throughout production, higher in fact than any protocols existing in horse racing anywhere with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally in barns at night or pastures. While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won't in the future. Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision.

Maybe yes and maybe no. Even before the third horse fatality, which occurred earlier this week, the cable network had come under withering fire from animal rights' groups for the way producers were using horses. But Luck wasn't exactly drawing in viewers, either. More than a million people watched the first episode back in January but only 500,000 or so were watching subsequent episodes. Anyone else out there think that HBO reckoned that those low ratings simply didn't merit the hassle of appeasing animal rights' groups going forward?

In the end, it doesn't really matter. The cancellation of the series, for either reason, is a devastating blow to horse racing. Luck was supposed to be a recruiting tool to help make racing what it used to be: cool, unforgettable, necessary, and evocative of the American scene. One hundreds years after the late, great Damon Runyon, two generations removed from the last Triple Crown winner, the series' premature cancellation makes you wonder: will there ever again be a series, stylish, contemporary look at the essence of the sport?

So as we bid adieu to Luck, and as we ponder the forlorn state of horse racing in North America, I'd like to leave you with a brief glimpse of my favorite scene from the series. Weeks ago, I asked HBO to send me the clip and I had planned to use it in a piece at the end of the first season. But there is no sense waiting now. The scene shows Dustin Hoffman, cast as some sort of mobster Chester "Ace" Bernstein, who is left overnight in the shed row to guard an injured horse that his beard (and bodyguard) had purchased while Bernstein was in prison.   



This majesty is what Luck could have been and should have been. And if it had been so it would not be where it is today, which is nowhere. We love our horses. We love to see them run, whether it's in a pasture or on a trail or at the track. When our horses bond with us, for a minute or for a lifetime, they give us a gift that no money can buy. If there is to be another Hollywood try at capturing the essence of this deep connection it has to come from that place in the human heart. As we've seen here with this sorry story, nothing else is good enough.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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