What Really Happened on HBO's 'Luck' — And Why Nobody Was Held Accountable

Gusmano Cesarett/HBO
David Milch (left) and Michael Mann

A Hollywood Reporter investigation, drawing on internal information obtained from AHA sources, found that three horse deaths on the set of the drama series may have been avoidable.

HBO canceled its high-profile horse racing drama Luck on March 14, 2012, one day after Real Awesome Jet reared up as she was being led back to her stall from the set, causing her to flip over and hit her head on the ground. After a vet determined the thoroughbred’s injuries were too severe to be treated, she was euthanized. She was the third horse to die during filming.

Almost from the start of production in 2010, Luck’s short run was plagued by allegations – mostly from the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which cited an on-set whistleblower in complaints to the Pasadena Humane Society and the L.A. County District Attorney’s office – that the production used horses that often were elderly, broken-down, underfed and potentially even drugged. After Real Awesome Jet’s death, HBO said, “An American Humane Association Certified Safety Representative was on the premises when the accident occurred, and as always, all safety precautions were in place.”

But THR’s investigation, drawing on internal information obtained from AHA sources, found that not only may the horse deaths have been avoidable, but the true equine damage was more extensive than originally thought – and, because two subsequent investigations appear to have been botched, no one was held accountable.

What separated Luck from most past television shows and movies about horse racing was a key decision by its creators: For maximum authenticity, the production really would race its horses for up to a third of a mile at one time (up to three times a day) rather than rely mostly on camera tricks and deft angles to simulate the more taxing scenes. By the end of the series – it was canceled after filming was completed on the first two shows of its second season – more than 2,500 horse runs had been completed. Creator/executive producer David Milch, who owns many racehorses, and director/executive producer Michael Mann, known to be a general stickler for visual details in his work, were adamant about achieving realness – deriding Seabiscuit, for instance, for what they felt was its relative lack of verisimilitude when it came to racehorse musculature.

“Simulating the sport is what we were used to doing,” says on AHA employee who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “Milch didn’t want to simulate the sport.” Says another AHA employee, “In horse racing, it’s seen as acceptable to have X number of horses breaking their legs and breaking down. It’s also very commonplace to drug them. But this was a [fictional] TV show. And in our world, we are supposed to have zero tolerance. I mean, on Saving Private Ryan, they didn’t really blow anyone up!”

An HBO spokeswoman declined to comment, referring THR to previously issued statements, including, “We worked very closely with the AHA and racing industry experts to implement safety protocols that go above and beyond typical film and TV industry standards and practices.”

Former AHA production manager Barbara Casey, in an ongoing lawsuit against the organization for unfair dismissal, portrays a production plagued by pervasive problems in the treatment of the horses. She also characterizes AHA’s top management as having buckled under the “political and financial pressure” of HBO, refusing her request to report animal abuse and cruelty directly to law enforcement, then subsequently firing her for being too difficult. Knowledgeable sources tell THR that two similarly insistent Luck on-set monitors, Jonne Rodarte and Jami LoVullo, were also let go under the same circumstances, but later agreed to settlements. (Casey would not comment for this story; nor would Rodarte and LoVullo, citing their confidentiality agreements. AHA is vigorously contesting Casey’s allegations.)

The second horse to die during filming was an 8-year-old thoroughbred gelding named Marc’s Shadow (the first was Outlaw Yodeler, a 5-year-old thoroughbred, who suffered a catastrophic right humerus fracture on April 30, 2010). Marc’s Shadow collapsed on set after severely fracturing his right radius and was subsequently euthanized. His April 22, 2011 necropsy, completed under the auspices of the California Horse Racing Board, notes that at the time of his death he had been officially retired from the track for half of his life and had been suffering from degenerative arthrosis before being pressed into service for HBO’s drama.

Matthew Chew, the production’s chief trainer, says of Marc’s Shadow, “I evaluated his soundness based off a physical exam. I had multiple veterinarians look at him. As far as the degenerative arthritis, I was not aware of that at the time of the breakdown. We started X-raying after that to make sure we weren’t caught off-guard again.”

The unforgiving pressures of Luck production itself also exacerbated the risk for horses, according to AHA staffers. Casey notes in her lawsuit that after the death of Marc’s Shadow, the AHA advised Luck not to run horses until the necropsy had been completed. But under pressure to resume production, co-executive producer Henry Bronchtein requested that the organization lift its recommended hold: “Unfortunately delaying the horses on track this week at the request of the AHA starts to jam us up,” he wrote the AHA, adding, “We absolutely need to find a way to augment the amount of horses we have to race and the pressure is mounting each day to get this done.”

The internal AHA sources as well as Casey in her lawsuit say that many of the problems they observed could be traced back to Chew. Both Chew and training partner Keith Craigmyle, who also worked on Luck, have been cited for running sick and unsound horses in California, according to public records kept by the Racing Board. The AHA’s various on-set monitors diligently logged the issues they had with Chew in reports to their managers, culminating in an April 1, 2011, internal memo to Rosa (obtained by THR), following the death of Marc’s Shadow. It recommended that the AHA formally ask Luck to replace him. That did not happen and problems persisted, including the death of Real Awesome Jet almost a year later.

In underlying incident reports, the AHA monitors detailed extensive problems with Chew (his wife, Candace Coder-Chew, is a well-connected executive at Santa Anita). Their claims included that he “consistently uses horses that are not prepped for the work required”; “feeds and exercises the bare minimum to cut costs, resulting in very thin horses”; “never offered information about illness or injury” and “openly admits wrongdoing in all these instances except drugging (which he does admit to privately).”

The document reveals that the three fatalities (there was a fourth, if one counts the death during a summer 2011 hiatus between seasons one and two of a horse named Home Trader, according to Casey’s lawsuit) may have been just the most severe examples of a larger issue of questionable equine care on the HBO drama. A horse named The Whole Enchilada was allowed to perform the highly risky act of breaking out from a racing gate on March 2, 2011, despite never having been schooled to do so. Two weeks later, on March 18, an AHA monitor requested that a horse named He Is Silent be pulled and its cinch (the piece of equipment used to keep the saddle in place) loosened. “Just one more take,” Chew said, according to the report. He Is Silent then “collapsed on the track.” (The horse survived.)

Such situations, in various forms, played out repeatedly. On Feb. 28, 2011, another horse, Mario (aka Moldy Joe), was pulled for being too thin. “Matt demonstrates with towel on horse’s back that he can cover horse’s ribs so that no one will notice how skinny he has become!” notes the day’s AHA incident report. Later, on March 2, Chew asked to work Mario again. “Matt states he has given Mario ‘extra electrolytes’… shocked – he was basically admitting to water-bloating horse to fill in the horse’s emaciated body. No mention of more food or supplements. Unacceptable.” (By March 29 he was “still too ribby for camera.” On the same day, five other horses were “still noted as thin,” AHA documents show.)

AHA monitors, according to their notes, also believed horses were being drugged to either alter performance or mask pain, an allegation Casey also makes in her lawsuit. On Jan. 25, 2011, for instance, “our Rep noticed that the five geldings (Heissilent, Danceman, Buzz, Silic’s Kid, & Bird of Prey) showed obvious signs of being tranquilized for a gate scene… Heads down, ears flat, eyes glazed over, penises dropped…

Chew, who says he has previously worked on Seabiscuit, Modern Family, CSI and Animal Planet, among other productions, adamantly denies that any horses were given illicit drugs. “Our horses were subjected to over 200 drug tests and none came up positive,” he says. “Not one of them came back positive.” (HBO also says its safety protocols banned inappropriate drugs.)  He also denies that any horses were mistreated or that the production used any unsuitable horses. “It was always an understanding that this was a zero-sum game and that we could not afford to hurt horses,” he says. “And I was told not to push things and not to do anything unnecessary.”

“It’s ludicrous,” he says of the allegation that his horses were underfed. “I was feeding these horses a very high caloric diet in order to keep their weight on them because they were being exercised and performing simulated racing scenes.”

After Luck ended, the AHA announced that it would launch an investigation. On June 4, 2012, the organization submitted its findings to L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Debbie Knaan, who specializes in animal cruelty cases. According to a PowerPoint slideshow later prepared by AHA executive Paul Raybould, which was obtained by THR, the AHA investigation determined that “no foul play” occurred. Knaan rejected AHA’s finding, concluding that its investigation was incomplete and that the organization could not be trusted to continue to pursue the case due to its inherent conflict of interest. In November 2012 she requested that Lt. Nemesio Arteaga of the Pasadena Humane Society – whose domain includes Santa Anita Racetrack – embark on his own probe.

Arteaga’s March 19, 2013 report, also obtained by THR, found that Sgt. Ed Lish, the AHA’s certified California Humane Officer that the organization put in charge of its investigation, conducted his work by phone and from out of state, didn’t attempt to procure a search warrant to pursue crucial toxicology results from the Racing Board and never interviewed key AHA staffers who were working on Luck, including Casey. (In California, animal cruelty investigations are handled by state licensed law enforcement officers — like Lish and Arteaga — employed by humane societies.)

When confronted by Arteaga – who also discovered that AHA’s certified Humane Officers had never been issued citation books to perform their supposed job duties – Lish admitted he’d been hamstrung by superiors on his Luck probe. “Lieutenant, I am embarrassed,” he said, according to Arteaga’s report. “I did the best I could under the circumstances… They have no clue about investigations, yet they sit behind their desk and dictate what I should do!”

Several AHA employees with knowledge of both the Luck affair and Lish’s inquiry tell THR they see the AHA inquest process as a characteristic pretense. One complains, “There was glaring evidence [of problems on the set]. That’s what’s so reprehensible. They could have used this disaster [to bring about industry change]. They’re just f—ing scared.”

Despite Arteaga’s diligence in untangling Lish’s lackluster inquiry, his own attempt at getting to the bottom of whether a crime had occurred was incomplete as well. His report makes no mention of having tried to interview Chew or Heidi Agnic, a veterinarian working for the production – both of whom the DA’s charge evaluation worksheet identifies as suspects. Nor that he reached out to Mann, Milch or Bronchtein, much less considered relevant toxicology results or AHA on-set monitoring notes that he could have obtained via warrant, if necessary. Asked why by THR, Arteaga noted that the elapsed period between the alleged misconduct and the start of his probe put him at a disadvantage. “As time goes by it becomes more and more difficult for the investigator to find answers,” he said.

Prosecutor Knaan declined to charge either Chew or Agnic. “There was no actual evidence presented to support” the allegations, she wrote. (Knaan declined to comment further on the matter to THR.) Case No. 33852730 was finally closed on Oct. 25.

The decision to close the case after two questionable investigations shocks Bob Ferber, the former deputy L.A. city attorney who ran the department’s animal cruelty division until retiring in March. “You do have a duty as a prosecutor to send it back, sometimes three or four times,” he says. “They should have gone much further. I would have gone much further. It was a whitewash.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.