Credit: Gusmano Cesaretti

In the series premiere of HBO’s Luck, David Milch and Michael Mann’s unsparing look at the grit beneath the glamour of thoroughbred racing, a horse pulling away from the pack and just strides away from the finish line snaps its leg and has to be euthanized on the track. It was a heartbreaking scene, made even more so by the recent news that at least two real horses had been injured during the filming of the series — though not during this particular sequence — and subsequently had to be put down.

Sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed that the pilot credits did not have the standard “No animals were harmed during the filming of this program” stamp of approval from the American Humane Association, which monitored the production. PETA brought attention to the issue last week, with a report of the deaths and claims that they had been rebuffed when they approached HBO with their concerns before filming. “Perhaps if producers had considered the proven safety protocols that we would have suggested, these horses would still be alive,” they said.

HBO initially responded with a statement first posted by the New York Observer, saying, “After the second accident, racing was suspended while the production worked with American Humane Association and racing industry experts to implement additional protocols specifically for horseracing sequences. The protocols included but were not limited to the hiring of an additional veterinarian and radiography of the legs of all horses being used by the production. Both HBO and AHA are committed to ensuring that all necessary safety procedures are in place and being implemented.”

PETA and HBO had opened up a dialogue about the animal policies once the accidents became public news. “We asked for the names of the horses, whether they were retired racing horses and what their records had been, what physical condition they were in, what their rest periods were, and if they were checked between racing sequences,” says Kathy Guillermo, vice president of PETA. “When we began to ask uncomfortable questions, they closed the door on us. We received an email this morning saying all this information is confidential and that they’re doing all that they can to prevent injuries.”

The AHA’s Karen Rosa, senior vice-president of the organization’s Film and Television Unit says the production has behaved responsibly. A stable of between 30 and 50 horses are rotated in for the show’s race scenes, and no horse is allowed to run more than three times in a day. Moreover, the track work is usually brief. “I think the magic of editing makes it look like all of this is happening in one shot in real time, but it’s not,” says Rosa. “It’s laboriously done in very short pieces. The horses are changed and given many breaks. Our mission is prevention, and we go to great lengths to ensure that.”

In their statement, HBO said that both incidents occurred during short race sequences — the second breakdown occurred during the filming of episode 7. “In both cases, an American Humane Certified Safety Representative was monitoring the animal action and verified that all soundness checks had been performed by the on-set veterinarian. In both instances, AHA conducted a full investigation and reviewed the necropsy provided by the California Horse Racing Board. The California Horse Racing Board has jurisdiction over all fatalities on the Santa Anita racetrack, and a necropsy is required on all on-track fatalities.”

Guillermo intends to appeal to the California Racing Board and request to see those necropsy reports. “Breakdowns don’t just happen,” says Guillermo. “They happen every day, obviously, but they don’t happen in the absence of conditions that create them. Horses breakdown for a reason, and often it has to do with the condition they’re in at the time they’re put on the track. So we want to know: Who were these horses that died?”

“We take what happened very seriously and we’re saddened by it,” responds Rosa, whose organization observes the treatment of animals in more than 2,000 film and TV productions each year. “The veterinarian did a soundness check on both horses and in both cases, American Humane was present for those soundness checks. We look to this to strengthen our already strict guidelines and to move ahead.”

For a complete rundown of the production’s precautions during filming with animals, click here.