For writer David Milch, a TV series' early demise always leaves something "bitter in the cup." With "Luck," the HBO horseracing drama he and director Michael Mann fashioned together, the dregs were unlike any other.
"Luck," a costly, high-profile project that brought Dustin Hoffman to his first series role, was canceled after the deaths of three thoroughbred horses provoked an outcry from animal activists and an unacceptable wave of bad publicity for HBO.
In an industry that avoids using the painful word "cancellation," let alone dwelling on the details, Milch and Mann are doing just that to address what they contend are uninformed criticisms about how horses were treated in the making of "Luck."
Milch's reflections also are telling about HBO's unfamiliarity with racing and what he calls its "innocence" about the risks of using fragile, high-strung thoroughbreds, whether in real, track-pounding races or slower staged ones.
While he and Mann tried and failed to persuade HBO to stick with "Luck," Milch called the channel's decision understandable. Two horses were put down after suffering fractures while running, while a third was euthanized after it slipped and suffered a head injury as it was led to a stable.
HBO ended second-season production on "Luck" in mid-March, after the third death. The season-one finale ran March 25.
In a joint statement, Milch and Mann said their production was committed to the "strictest protocols and safety procedures anywhere in the equine world." The standards, including a ban on anti-inflammatories to mask lameness or "any defect," are posted online.
In horseracing "it might be acceptable ... to treat a horse for lameness" and race it, he said. But he insisted that was never the case on "Luck," filmed at Santa Anita Park in suburban Arcadia.
The shock waves from the "Luck" deaths have gone beyond TV to the sport the series portrayed, focusing attention on the rate at which racehorses are injured and die.
Milch, a prominent writer whose credits include ABC's "NYPD Blue" and HBO's "Deadwood," also is a lifelong racing devotee who's owned championship horses and is acutely aware of the dangers for both animals and jockeys. HBO and its executives, he said, did not share that awareness.
"There was a kind of innocence that was involved in failing to understand it (accidents) could happen to us" despite stringent safety measures, he said. "In other words, having taken so many precautions, they were persuaded we would be insulated from the possibility of injury, and the truth was no one is."
HBO declined comment Monday on Milch's remarks.
Milch has moved on from the series "Luck," although perhaps not from the complex, unfinished tale that he and Mann said was intended to evoke "the spirit and magic" of thoroughbreds. There is talk of a novel, although Milch said it's early and "typically not very realistic."
"Luck" faces the double whammy of being short-lived and, compared to an HBO hit such as "The Sopranos," low-rated. (It was also expensive, Milch acknowledged, but stayed within a budget that he didn't detail.)
He's now occupied with finishing a screenplay of William Faulkner's 1932 novel "Light in August," part of his agreement with the Faulkner estate for TV series and movie adaptations. HBO has the first opportunity to produce the projects.
Milch's daughter, Olivia, 23, a recent Yale graduate who wrote a combined bachelor's and master's thesis on Faulkner, is working with him, he said with obvious pride.
"It's a pure pleasure and, especially in the aftermath of the incidents we've been talking about, an enormous relief," Milch said.