The sport of kings has rarely looked so sumptuous as in Dustin Hoffman's tele- vision series Luck, which earned at least a portion of its critical acclaim for its portrayal of thoroughbreds barrelling around the sun-kissed racetracks of southern California.
Off camera though, things aren't so pretty. Cable channel HBO, which is currently filming the drama's second series, has abruptly suspended the use of horses on its set following the sudden death of yet another one of its equine performers.
A horse was put to death on Tuesday after it reared, fell over backwards, and hit its head. The incident, which occurred on location at Santa Anita racetrack north of Los Angeles, represented the third fatal accident involving horses in Luck's short history.
Animal rights activists are predictably outraged by the development, and have called for police to launch an investigation into possible breaches of welfare laws. They blamed the "outrageous" deaths on "sloppy oversights" by the makers of the show, created by the Hollywood director, Michael Mann.
HBO, for its part, can barely afford more negative publicity for the expensive show, which recently debuted in the UK on Sky. Though heavily marketed, and despite receiving positive reviews, Luck has underperformed commercially, attracting a mere 625,000 viewers in the US.
In a statement, the network said it was "deeply saddened" by the horse's death. It promised "full co-operation" with an investigation by the American Humane Association [AHA]. "Recent assertions of lax attitudes or negligence could not be further from the truth," it read. "We will not be filming horses until AHA completes its inquiry."
This week's fatal accident was witnessed by Gary Beck, a vet. "The horse was on her way back to the stall when she reared, flipped over backwards, and struck her head on the ground," he said, in a statement. Since the injury was too serious to respond to treatment, euthanasia the only appropriate move, he added.
The California Horse Racing Board, which has allowed HBO to use Santa Anita during its off-season, said that a full post mortem will now be carried out on the creature. "Unfortunately, we see several of these injuries in the stable area every year," said its equine medical director, Rick Arthur. "They are more common than people realise."
That is unlikely to quieten Hollywood's noisy animal welfare lobby. Even before this week's events, they were investigating Luck's treatment of its equine stars, alleging that two other horses who suffered fatal accidents during the filming of the show's first series should never have been allowed on set.