Luck’s Cancellation: A Different Perspective

by | 04.02.2012 | 7:37am

With all the shock of HBO pulling the plug on the second season of LUCK, green-lit after just one episode aired and barely after wrapping up episode 7, rumors went viral and the negative press has filled up our virtual inboxes. Now as the dust settles, the finale was actually the “Grand Finale,” and the depression sets in for those who had fallen in love with the work they were doing, the family they had formulated on and off the racetrack set, it feels only apropos to tell a few good stories…because there are many.

I met David Milch at the Santa Anita Racetrack on March 13, 2010, when Zenyatta was running in the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap. I had taken an actress to Santa Anita, one I had been hired by HBO to give riding lessons to and that David handpicked for a part in his new pilot, LUCK. She was meant to play the role of exercise rider “Rosie” (later portrayed by Kerry Condon), and she needed to look and feel confident on the back of a high-strung Thoroughbred movie star. On this particular day I offered to take her to the track to give her an additional lesson in horse racing and see live one of the greatest race horses of all time achieve her 15th straight consecutive win.


Just before the seventh race, my new friend offered to introduce me to David Milch, who was in the track's Frontrunner Restaurant. When we arrived at his table he was surrounded by the likes of Dustin Hoffman and his son, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, John Perrotta and so many others I couldn't keep their names straight.  David was ecstatic to see us and was vibrating at a level consistent with those highly enlightened folks who, when in their element, seem to emit a type of electricity that is visible and utterly contagious.

Immediately he handed us stacks of Zenyatta “$2 Win” tickets and told us to keep them as souvenirs. Perhaps the third thing out of his mouth, post introductions, and gifting us with cash, he beckoned, “Do you want to be in the show?” Amused, I politely declined.  We left David and his entourage, who were experiencing one of the many schoolings to come on race-tracking 101.

Over time, I got to know each piece of the LUCK puzzle.  Veteran horseman John Perrotta and I became life-long friends after discovering it was his dog, Oscar, I attended to each time I went into the racing secretary's office to get box seats on race days. I learned of John's in-depth knowledge of Thoroughbred horse racing and the stories within the stories written for LUCK (read “Wild Ride,” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach to learn about the horse that Walter Smith sympathetically refers to frequently in LUCK as having been “killed”).

John learned quickly of my love and knowledge of horses, friendships with Thoroughbred trainers and my pastime of taking horses from the track and offering them a second career.  Two of my own three horses came from Jack Van Berg (Hall of Fame Thoroughbred trainer, upon whom Nick Nolte's role as Walter Smith might be based) and one from the Premarin ranches in Canada. Over the years I have adopted or found homes for at least 50 horses, one at a time, from the likes of Van Berg and other Thoroughbred trainers at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. My stab at this risky business started in Washington State on an island, north of Seattle, where I grew up riding since the age of 6. When I was in my teens I gravitated from Quarter Horses, to the feisty, flighty, high-strung Thoroughbreds…for the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the challenge.

Soon after my stint giving lessons for HBO, I was invited to help one of the wranglers on the LUCK set, prepping and saddling the horses for their time on camera. That step was short-lived, however, as no sooner I ended up playing a female trainer in the show, sans lines, essentially an extra.

I had little interest in sitting around all day “waiting for something to happen,” but there was something curious about looking out over the Santa Anita racetrack from Clocker's Corner, where each morning the world of local horse racing collides to grab coffee, breakfast, watch majestic animals stretch their legs in a fluid and enchanting rhythm, while the fog of your breath and the steam coming off hundreds of horses is still visible, as the sun comes up over the mile of green grass and dirt that sets the stage, framed by the sublime San Gabriel Mountains. It's hard to believe you're still in LA.  And we all have one thing in common, the love of horses.

So the idea of LUCK culminated in David's mind over a decade ago, when John and he were bidding on the same colt at a yearling sale. They had originally met in 1984 at the first Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park, through a horse named Raami trained by Darrell Vienna, owned by Milch.  Raami came in third. John used Vienna to train horses as well.  

As the price rose on the young Thoroughbred in the auction ring, John decided to make an offer to co-own the horse with Milch.  They became partners on a pony that didn't prove to be worth his $100,000 or so price tag, so John sold his half to Milch for a buck. Milch hired John a dozen years later for his in depth expertise on horse racing, to write with the likes of Bill Barich (Author: Laughing in the Hills) and Jay Hovdey (executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form), among others.

When the first horse went down on the set of LUCK during the pilot, it was just before the 2010 Kentucky Derby. It is still inexplicable how after Mann called it “a wrap” and the horses slowed on the track to head back to the barn, that they discovered a missing shoe and a puncture wound in the chest of the horse. “How could he have been hit with his own shoe?” They next discovered a broken shoulder, an injury that could not be treated, and the horse was euthanized. The cast and crew, almost exclusively novices to this world of Thoroughbred racing, were sobered by the loss of this magnificent creature they had fallen so deeply in love with and the first round of depression set in.

It was the first of three fatalities from 2010 to 2012, according to the Paulick Report, which recently wrote:

 –In May 2010, jockey David Neusch had pulled up a horse, Outlaw Yodeler, that had been in a scene and was jogging him back to the barn. The horse was playfully rooting, or pulling its head up and down, and tripped on its own feet, falling onto its right shoulder. The impact shattered its humerus. Following the accident, Dr. Agnic administered several medications to relieve pain, tranquilize the horse and reduce swelling in the event the injury was treatable. It was not the kind of fracture that can be treated, however, and Outlaw Yodeler was euthanized.

A year later, during filming of LUCK, a second horse, Marc's Shadow, suffered a catastrophic fracture of its upper leg bone, or radius. The fracture was so severe that euthanasia was conducted immediately.

Last week, as a horse was being walked in the stable area by what LUCK writer John Perrotta said was an experienced groom, the horse slipped on a dirt pathway, reared, and fell backwards. It landed on its poll, or soft area on the head where many nerve endings gather. It's an injury that often punctures the carotid artery, and requires euthanasia.

There is no explanation as to why any of these incidents happened that will ever make sense to the general public, or justify the argument that the safety precautions taken daily with every horse could have changed the outcome. Take a tour of any barn in the country, whether it be racing, hunter jumper, Western, pleasure … the fact is, these big beautiful creatures are fragile and as fast and powerful and fantastic as they are, they sometimes suffer serious injuries. When horses get hurt it breaks our hearts and we wonder obsessively about what we could have done differently to prevent these mishaps.

Sometimes it may occur because of inexperience, negligence, or recklessness, but not on this set. Those were not the reasons. These horses were treated like all other race horses, like professional athletes. What people need to know is that race horses in general, as well as the characters on LUCK, are treated like the true professional athletes that they are! I would challenge any horse owner to demonstrate better care or attention than these animals are given. The care ranges from their diets, to the massages, chiropractic adjustments, icing, repetitive magnetic pulse therapy, subcutaneous & intramuscular therapies (of which I won't bother trying to explain to PETA, as it would be like trying to explain foreign policies to Sarah Palin). These special subjects get more vet checks and medical attention than a preemie baby!

Even more important to note, is that the horses used in LUCK were never pushed or encouraged to run “all out,” as they would in a normal racing situation. They were held back (obvious to the expert by the way they carried their head in race scenes) and on shooting days any given “horse actor” was only allowed to work three-eighths of a mile, no more than three times on any given day, with a minimum of 20 minutes in between takes (and trust me, I was there, it was usually more than 20 mins).

This year the maximum distance was changed to a quarter mile, no horse could run more than two times per day, with a minimum 20 minutes rest between takes, always under the scrutiny of American Humane Association officers.  No one authorized to handle their equine charge was ever negligent or at fault in any of the unfortunate incidents that ensued throughout the filming of this show.

Some people, it is rumored, have criticized the handler of the last horse to be euthanized, for not using a lip chain on the horse, making claims that had they, the horse wouldn't have flipped over. Well, for starters, the American Humane Association prohibited the use of lip chains on the set. Secondly, and more importantly, if you have a 1,200-pound animal whose inherent response to anything it doesn't understand or is frightened by, is to bolt, react, rear up, or split the scene, well there is not much that is going to prevent that, not even a lip chain.

When PETA made it's accusations about head wrangler Matt Chew's herd being administered drugs in a negative light, as if numbing them from pain they were enduring on the set is ludicrous. Yes his favorite mare was given drugs to stave off the pain when she hit her head before they made the difficult decision to take her out of her misery. Anyone who had consideration for the horse's comfort would have done the same. Maybe not PETA … now that they have shocked even Congress, in their support of bringing horse slaughter back to the U.S.

PETA has falsely reported on LUCK from the very beginning. In one article PETA castigated the show saying that ”two horses had died and luckily the horse that shattered its leg in episode 1, managed to live through it.” That was Computer Graphic Imagery … duh!  

Stories about horses being old, out of shape, and injured, is just a compendium of manufactured fiction, to sway the public into believing untruths.

No one bothered to mention that 2,500 starts were shot out of the gate, without incident. Compare that to the national average of incidents that occur on regular racing tracks.

In the early part of 2010 the liaison between PETA and its celebrities, Ilana Sparrow, asked me to participate in an interview about “rescuing horses off the track” and allowing one of my horses to be filmed with Model/Actress Joanna Krupa, her mother and sister aboard. This “PETA Person” as I will refer to her, boarded her horses at the same facility with mine. She rode her horses, with her expensive leather riding boots, saddle and a bit in their mouth … all absolute no no's to PETA's criteria. I have no idea why I agreed, as I have never thought of these people as anything less than an extremist group of uniformed trouble makers who like to have half-naked celebrities, dripping in blood, in plastic meat packing displays, on billboards. What do they actually do besides euthanize the cats and dogs they say they can't afford to take care of?

So, I obliged. The cameramen asked me a lot of questions about my horses and where they came from. Joanna's mother seemed to enjoy her ride around the arena on “Baraka” my Premarin rescue. Then the PETA Person started trying to coerce me into saying negative things about the track and I wouldn't comply. There are too many arguments about what is good and bad about any equine discipline for me to get into a debate with a non-expert on the subject.  

This PETA Person insisted I bridge a meeting with Milch, crying non-response from him and his associates … to which I rolled my eyes and asked, “Why would he ever feel obligated to meet with you about anything?” Then the camera men asked me if I “ate horse meat.”  I got a little choked up, as I flashed back to rescuing Baraka just before he could have met that fate. My response, “Why would you ask me that? The camera men responded, “It's actually very good, we've enjoyed it often.” At that point I said we were done.

What perhaps many people don't realize, is that the horses used in LUCK were actual race horses claimed or purchased at tracks around Southern California. What Matt Chew did for these horses when he brought them into his heard for the show was save them from feed lots and slaughter houses, a very serious reality for any race horse that “doesn't make it”.  Of the 35,000 thoroughbreds a year born to race, only about one-half of them make it to the track for any period of time and only 20 of those horses qualify each year for the renowned Kentucky Derby. Many race in lower level races, such as claiming races, like the one where Renzo & Goose (Ritchie Coster & Woody Copeland) tried to claim Mon Gateau as a surprise for their degenerate tribe.  

So none of the stacked cast of characters or crew on LUCK wants to be remembered for causing a horse harm. Not John Ortiz, who played Turo Escalante (modeled after the real Peruvian trainer Julio Canani, who gained a reputation for developing claiming horses into stakes race winners). Ortiz learned to saddle a race horse and watched the weekly episodes of LUCK with the likes of Nick Nolte, or Ian Hart (Lonnie) who moved his entire family to Los Angeles from London to work on this show, or Richard Kind (Joey Rathburn) who claimed this was the most beautiful work he had done, or Jason Gedrick, who spent days and nights becoming a committed poker player for his role as “Jerry,” or Kerry Condon (Rosie) who has spent countless hours on the backs of horses perfecting her riding, or Kevin Dunn (Marcus) who is probably still cursing about how this all ended … no, there isn't an actor from this set who isn't brooding their loss, of creativity, or the extensive friendships that resulted. And the hundreds of folks out of work at the track, due to a poor economy, that had gotten a job as an extra and was proud of what they participated in. Santa Anita was a happy place once again, for some of the regulars. And on real race days, new faces showed up to see what this racing world was all about and gamble, on the off-chance they might hit a trifecta.

So if PETA wants credit for something in this LUCK drama, then how about a pat on the back for leaving 47 horses without a job or a home and 400 people in a weak economy out of work. High five to a job well done! Next time do a little more research on what it is you are blasting out of your bull horn.

In the words of John Grillo, Director of Photography (Episode #8/Season 1, Episode #1/Season 2), when the news came down about the cancellation of the show he had been hired to complete through season 2, “I think it's beyond a horse's unfortunate accidental death. I'm so sorry about the horse, but it's not our fault.” And it wasn't.  

More like HBO jumped the gun on a show with questionable ratings, using some convoluted bad press, to escape quickly out the back door.

Chiara Tellini, a native of Washington, has been riding horses most of her life and began re-homing Thoroughbreds off the racetrack at the age of 13. When she's not working in the educational technology sector, she gives riding lessons to actors to prepare for films and television.

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