Jessica Chapel / Railbird

HBO

Commodities

From Glenye Cain Oakford’s interview with owner George Strawbridge:

“Then, you have the PETA video … maybe that was a turning point. I’m not saying it is, but it could be, because it takes the question out of the realm of just cheating. Maybe the majority of people don’t care about the cheating because maybe they just see it as racing insiders cheating each other, but when PETA shows up with this video, that expands the equation to cruelty to animals, which I think most people do care about. If you love horses, you don’t call them rats and treat them like commodities.”

And you don’t “feed” them unnecessary drugs. More on that point, and the HBO Real Sports segment that aired earlier this week, from Tom Noonan:

The more disturbing reality, however, is that horses are given too many drugs, even if they are “legal.” They are often given, as HBO stated, to make a horse run faster or to mask a painful condition, and not because it is necessary to treat a diagnosed medical issue. One segment of the PETA video that was replayed by HBO was of a vet describing Lasix as a performance-enhancing drug. Almost every horse racing in this country is racing with Lasix. Thyroxine is being “fed” to horses not because it is necessary, but because it is viewed as a performance enhancer.

Hollywood Beckons

Santa Anita meet’s closed on Sunday and its numbers don’t tell a happy story*. David Milch’s racetrack drama probably won’t either, but the “Luck” preview released by HBO on Monday generates a good kind of excitement:

As a setting for storytelling, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Milch.

The horses used in filming “Luck” were some of the first to test the restored dirt track at Santa Anita last December, the same surface on which 19 horses were fatally injured during the meet. With an additional fatality on the training track and six on the turf course, the total number of fatalities came to 26 (as estimated here). Santa Anita is funding a safety study: “We hope that data will be important to us and something that we can apply.” That is to be hoped! It was a real pleasure to watch Santa Anita for three years and rarely worry about seeing a horse go down. After this meet, I can’t say that — and I’m not alone.

How’s this for ugly? Fatality numbers were almost all that was up at Santa Anita. While attendance held steady, handle declined. The track announced a 9% decrease in average daily handle, but the raw CHRIMS data, available through CalRacing, showed a 20.7% decline in gross handle over the previous year, from $589 million (PDF) to $467 million (PDF). Adjusting for eight fewer days, and a decline of 9.7% in the number of races carded, the Blood-Horse found average daily handle was down 11.6%. Pull the Pocket has an interesting theory on why Blood-Horse, which originally reported the 9% decline straight, revisited the handle numbers so thoroughly and quickly.

As long as I’m linking bad news, here’s more: The national HBPA officially opposes the proposed RCI ban on raceday medications. Apparently, a five-year phase-out isn’t long enough. “Blah. Blah. Blah,” says Ray Paulick. Exactly.

*Not a happy story, unless you’re a horseman or owner, in which case, hooray! Total purses were up 5.1% for the Santa Anita meet.

Working Around

Production is set to begin October 31 at Santa Anita on “Luck,” complicated by the racetrack surface renovation underway:

All of the changes have forced HBO to break up filming of their episodes and have caused problems in booking certain guest cast members and in working with the series’ directors, Bronchtein said.

In addition, the crew has less days to shoot the early episodes and fewer days to prepare for upcoming ones.

“That just adds pressure to the process,” he said. “It’s really forced us to work extra hard and to be at the top of our game.”

The new track surface is expected to be ready by early December, which is when “Luck” plans to stage races for filming. That’s one way to test the dirt …

How has this tidbit not come up before? Bill Barich, author of “Laughing in the Hills” and “A Fine Place to Daydream,” is part of the writing crew on “Luck” and on the scene at Santa Anita. The handicapper-writer, who had been living in Dublin, told the Irish Times, “If all goes well … this gig, as opposed to my books, may keep me out of the Trail’s End trailer park in Santa Rosa.”

Anticipating “Luck”

Michael Mann talks about “Luck” with the Los Angeles Times:

“To make these characters be alive, you have a sense of them intuitively and viscerally,” Mann said. “The challenge of it is obvious, but the economy of it is wonderful — if you can make it work.”

Making “the economy” work has been the director’s career. Khoi Vinh:

What’s left out from these movies is as important and beautiful as what’s included. They’re exercises in doing as much as possible with as little as possible, implying whole swaths of narrative information by allowing the audience to extrapolate events, details, backstories and subplots from only the barest hints of their presence…. Mann employs an architectural approach that establishes a plot framework but declines to fill every nook and cranny. He uses very few elements to suggest many more, and in so doing constructs a kind of environment that the audience experiences rather than a narrative account that the audience observes.

Or, as Mann tells his interviewer, discussing audience perceptions:

“It’s liberating to jump into the stream of a story and jump into the stream of a character and convey by attitude, ambience and the tone of that person — and their surroundings and how they’re reacting to those surroundings — the magic of what’s happening. When you can bring the audience into understanding and they have leapt over that little gap, and they’re getting it on their own, it’s a much more intense involvement.”

There is nothing about this show that isn’t coming together.

Weekend Notes

Buzz builds for “Luck.” A producer claims, “it will be the greatest show on TV.” TV critic Alan Sepinwall (who writes some of the best “Mad Men” recaps out there) is excited — and worried — about the HBO drama, noting that it “may have the most prominent creative firepower, in front of and behind the camera, of any show in the channel’s history,” but what about Dustin Hoffman? Entertainment Weekly tabs the Oscar winner’s presence as a “breakthrough” for TV, while Santa Anita reveals what Variety didn’t, that the first season will consist of the pilot and “seven to nine additional weekly episodes.”

Sure, bring the kids for a day at the races. But don’t let them bet at Saratoga. (A trespass charge and an anti-gambling class? Oh, come on.)

Wow. Monmouth Park reports incredible results for the first 24 days of the “elite summer meet,” with attendance up 13% over comparable days in 2009, on-track handle up 43%, and total handle up an amazing 118%. The average field size is also up over last year, to 9.0, compared to 7.44 in 2009. Monmouth doesn’t mention claiming activity in its press release, but that must also be up by a huge amount, with 215+ claims so far. At the start of the Monmouth “less-is-more” experiment, Steven Crist wrote, “Gov. Chris Christie has said his goal is to make the racing industry ‘entirely self-sustaining.’ Unless handle increases from last year’s $3.1 million a day to $10 million, that isn’t going to happen.” That hasn’t happened, but with average daily handle of $7.6 million, Monmouth is still in a very good spot. [7/19/10 Addition: Business of Racing digs into Monmouth claiming activity vis-a-vis Belmont.]

By Ragozin figures, Blind Luck tops 3-year-olds of either sex.

After the Massachusetts state senate approved a casino bill 25-15 earlier this month, expanded gaming looked almost certain. There were just a few differences with the house bill to reconcile in committee, and a tight deadline for getting legislation to the governor. Difficult, but not impossible. Now, State House News Service reports, “… serious people are talking in somber tones about a two-week stare-down that yields nothing in the way of major legislation. The unimaginable — failure to sanction casinos despite Big 3 ardor and at least $1.8 million spent on lobbying during the first six months of the year — looms.” It’ll be a tense watch for slots supporters …

Yes, a gentleman!” I never tire of the General Quarters story.

Milch Reads “Luck”

This is awesome: David Milch reads from the first 20 pages of “Luck.” The reading, which took place at the Kelly Writers House in April, begins about 17 minutes into the audio (MP3). There’s a little dark humor, a lot of racetrack talk. It sounds very, very promising. (Thanks to Tony Hanadarko for the link!)

HBO has yet to make a decision about the “Luck” pilot, filmed this spring, but Santa Anita officials believe there is “a very strong possibility” it will pick up the racetrack drama, which stars Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman.

7/15/10 Update: HBO has picked up “Luck.” Said a network executive, “Michael Mann delivered a pilot from David Milch’s brilliant script that took our breath away.” Production will start this fall, the show will air in 2011.

Odds and Ends

From an interview in TDN with David Milch, on “Luck,” his new show for HBO:

I hope it’s going to be an awful lot of fun, but I am realistic enough to know that not every day at the racetrack ends with people skipping happily through the flowers. With anything that is a passion, I think it’s a passion because it accomodates a whole range of feelings, some of which are mutually exclusive. It’s both love and pain. I would hope this will render the full spectrum of emotions. If you ask me whether I’m looking forward to it, I’m absolutely looking forward to it. Do I expect it to be fun? I’m not sure.

Milch knows the darker side of racing and gambling well. Via o_crunk, a profile of the writer that includes a fascinating scene revolving around a tip.

A look can say so much:

The only anxious moment came heading into the first turn, when it appeared that Bunker Hill, under Chuck Lopez, would challenge Understatement on the front end. Following a glance from Cohen, Lopez backed off.

“I gave him a look like ‘Come on man, don’t do that to me,'” Cohen said. “Save that for the next race.”

Bunker Hill finished last in the Evening Attire Stakes, won by favored Understatement in 1:42.94 with unchallenged ease on Saturday at Aqueduct.

Zenyatta will race in 2010! Reactions to the thrilling news gathered here.