LOS ANGELES – HBO is defending its treatment of horses used in the racetrack drama "Luck" after two of the animals died during production.
The horses were injured and euthanized during filming of the series, which stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte and has been renewed for a second season. The deaths, which occurred a year apart in 2010 and 2011, have drawn criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"From the very outset of this project, the safety of the animals was of paramount concern to us," HBO said in a statement this week. "Recent assertions of lax attitudes or negligence could not be further from the truth."
HBO said it worked in partnership with the American Humane Association and racing industry experts "to implement safety protocols that go above and beyond typical film and TV industry standards and practices."
The AHA's film and TV unit, the group sanctioned and supported by the entertainment industry to protect animals used in filming, called for a production halt at the Santa Anita Racetrack in suburban Arcadia after the second horse's death, said Karen Rosa, the AHA unit's senior vice president.
"Racing resumed after new protocols were put in place. We've seen that they worked. HBO stepped up and adhered to the new standards, which are the gold standard for race filming going forward," Rosa said Friday.
The AHA upgrades its guidelines on a continual basis, she said, drawing on new scientific and production data.
The revised safeguards include the use of a second veterinarian to perform "soundness" checks on each horse and taking X-rays of all horse's legs for any problems that could prevent a horse being used in race sequences.
Thoroughbreds used for "Luck" run for shorter distances than in an actual race, with stunt horses and computer-generated special effects added to help bolster the completed scene, Rosa said.
Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice president, said Friday the group does not consider the matter closed.
"Racing itself is dangerous enough. This is a fictional representation of something and horses are still dying, and that to me is outrageous," she said.
She said the AHA's guidelines failed to prevent the two deaths "so clearly they were inadequate." PETA contacted HBO for details on the accidents and euthanized horses and received a partial reply but was rebuffed when it requested more, Guillermo said.
HBO said it provided information about the accidents and safety protocols to PETA but that details on the horses' identities and their necropsy results were privileged. There was full compliance and transparency with the AHA, the premium channel said.
It and "Luck" drew praise from Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, who called the series' horse protections "exemplary."
"In fact, I wish I had this in horseracing in California and the U.S. The racing industry can learn from some of the things HBO is doing to safeguard these horses," Arthur said.
Horseracing faces a "frankly disturbing fatality rate" that the industry is trying to address, he said.