The drama about the underbelly of racing starred Dustin Hoffman, in his first TV series, as a crime boss scheming to bring casino gambling to a track. Nick Nolte, Joan Allen, Michael Gambon and Dennis Farina were among other high-profile actors in the show.
Series creator and producer Milch has had success in broadcast TV with "NYPD Blue" and on HBO with "Deadwood." Michael Mann, the big-screen director whose credits include "Heat" and "Public Enemies," paired with Milch as producer and directed the pilot.
The complex drama proved a challenge for viewers, and "Luck" fell far short of an HBO hit such as "The Sopranos," drawing as few as 500,000 for a weekly debut showing. But the combined figure that included DVR viewings was 4.8 million per episode, exceeding that of other HBO shows including "Treme," ''Enlightened" and "Bored to Death."
Milch, a successful race horse owner himself, had generated a misfire for the channel before, with the short-lived "John from Cincinnati" in 2007, but he is a valuable creative partner for HBO. Making the decision to end production on "Luck" was a difficult but, it seems, inevitable one.
HBO, owned by Time Warner Inc., was being hit by the kind of bad publicity that only the most successful project could justify enduring.
Among those condemning the equine deaths was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which called oversight of the animals' welfare inadequate and alleged that old, unfit horses were being overworked.
Those claims were rebutted by HBO, Dr. Arthur and the humane association's Rosas, who said the group's guidelines are much more stringent than any federal, state or local regulations.
"Racing itself is dangerous enough. This is a fictional representation of something and horses are still dying, and that to me is outrageous," Kathy Guillermo, a PETA vice president, said after the second equine death.
Famed racing industry members voiced regret over the cancellation, although there had previously been mutterings from some about how "Luck" depicted the sport's seedier side.
"It's very disappointing. I was hoping it'd be a big hit. I feel bad for all the people they employed," Bob Baffert, Hall of Fame trainer and three-time Kentucky Derby winner, said in Santa Anita's daily stable briefing last week.
Marc Bekoff — a University of Colorado professor emeritus of evolutionary biology and author of "The Emotional Lives of Animals," about animals in entertainment — reserves his sympathy for the horses.
Bekoff, who wants to see computer-generated imagery and other tricks used in place of filming with live animals, took a combined slap at racing and Hollywood.
"Horse racing in general suffers from a lot of questionable ethics," Bekoff said. "Running staged encounters with these horses raises the same questions."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.
AP Racing Writer Beth Harris contributed to this report.
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