When singer Ray Charles lamented that "if it wasn't for bad luck . . . I wouldn't have no luck at all," he wasn't singing about Luck, HBO's ill-fated series about Thoroughbred racing--but he could have been. Dogged by criticism from racing fans who felt the series painted the sport in an unflattering light, too few viewers, and the deaths of three horses, HBO and executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann finally gave up.

Production on the series was halted for a time when two horses were destroyed after breaking down during filming of race sequences. Then on March 14, Luck was canceled for good when a third horse was euthanized after suffering serious injuries in a fall on the Santa Anita backstretch.

Two days before the cancellation was announced, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) weighed in. PETA has been a critic of Luck almost from the start, and in a letter dated March 12 the PETA Foundation contacted Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, requesting a criminal investigation into the deaths of the first two horses.

Crying Wolf?

PETA hardly ever passes up an opportunity to publicize its agenda and the organization's sometimes bizarre campaigns have created a serious problem for the group--writing PETA off as a band of animal rights wingnuts, which is tempting, makes it nearly impossible to notice when the group might actually be onto something.

According to the PETA letter, an unnamed equine veterinarian and Thoroughbred racing expert reviewed necropsy reports on the two horses that suffered fatal injuries during filming. The first horse, 5-year-old Outlaw Yodeler, broke down during shooting in late April 2010; the second fatality occurred when 8-year-old Marc's Shadow was injured during filming in late March 2011.

PETA alleges that both horses were out of shape and suffered from serious medical problems that should have kept them off the track, even in a pretend race for the cameras.

Outlaw Yodeler, the letter claims, was suffering from "severe pain and inflammation" and may have been physically unfit to race. The severity of the injury to the horse's right front leg suggested that the "leg has been overloaded," according to PETA's unnamed expert.

Marc's Shadow, the letter claims, had not raced since 2007. According to "multiple whistleblowers who were on the scene," PETA says, Marc's Shadow was "arthritic and out of shape."

PETA asked District Attorney Cooley to investigate the roles played by trainer Matthew Chew, veterinarian Heidi Agnic, David Milch, and other unnamed "key personnel" in the deaths of Outlaw Yodeler and Marc's Shadow and whether there were violations of California animal welfare law. The American Humane Association (AHA) monitored the filming of Luck, and PETA also requested an investigation into the adequacy of welfare recommendations made by AHA and whether the production company complied with those recommendations.

Who's In Charge?

California has some of the strongest animal welfare laws in the nation. Section 597(b) of the California Penal Code says that anyone who "overdrives, overloads, drives while overloaded, overworks, tortures, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, drink, or shelter, cruelly beats, mutilates, or cruelly kills any animal . . ." is guilty of a crime.

Whether using horses in a television production about Thoroughbred racing, or any other conduct, fits the statutory definition of animal cruelty depends on whether terms like "overloads" and "overworks" are given broad or narrow definitions. Make the definitions too broad and activities not intended to fall under the purview of the statute--racing, showing, jumping, trail riding over difficult terrain, anything where a horse might be "overloaded" or "overworked"--suddenly become crimes.

The California Horse Racing Board, which has jurisdiction over activities at the state's race tracks, has a similar rule. CHRB Rule 1902.5 provides that no one under the Board's jurisdiction shall "permit or cause an animal under his control or care to suffer any form of cruelty, mistreatment, neglect or abuse."

It's not clear yet whether a criminal investigation will materialize. If one does, it will be a stretch to shoehorn horse racing and movie making into animal welfare statutes or administrative rules arguably written to cover other activities. Still, neither racing nor the entertainment industry is specifically exempted.

Over the weekend on National Public Radio, a commentator suggested that because horses suffer serious injuries during actual races, breakdowns also are likely to occur during the making of a realistic television program about racing. That makes no more sense than arguing that actors should be killed during the filming of a realistic war movie, but it raises an intriguing question:

Horse racing is dangerous for horses and riders. Does that mean that animals and people should be put at risk to add realism to a film about the sport?