In recent months, the reputation of horse racing has been tarnished, in many ways due to the HBO TV show Luck. In March, Luck was canceled because several horses were fatally injured on set. Such injuries are all too common in horse racing and often are the reasons people object to animals being raced. Tragic and avoidable deaths are certainly a terrible part of racing, but limitation of pain medication, for which many are working today, could be a big step up. Though the racing industry needs drastic improvements, the tired-out stereotyping in Luck itself has also taken the industry down a notch in class.
In Luck, Dustin Hoffman played the role of Chester “Ace” Bernstein, an ex-mobster who just got out of prison. It’s not much of a leap to suggest that Bernstein—with a Jewish last name—is a caricature of a figure with lots of money and not much care how he spends it, legally or illegally. The New York Times even featured the character in its list of “Jewish Rogues.” I think it’s no coincidence that the stereotypical “big bettor” figure, stereotyped in literature and television, is often Jewish. One can forget the positive contributions Jews have made to racing when such negative conventions pop up so often.
I myself couldn’t get beyond the first episode. of the series. I wanted to see the horses and live and breathe the life of the backstretch, but the writers insisted on focusing on the “dark side” of gambling, rather than the day-to-day dramas of the track. From what I’ve read since, Luck was a living, breathing stereotype of everything negative about racing. Its characters weren’t original. Of course there have to be mobsters in the Thoroughbred racing industry, if only because there is gambling involved; naturally, people see no room for anything more than that. In fact, Jews have contributed in far more ways than as gangsters to racing. They’ve trained and owned Kentucky Derby winners and ridden important horses.
This outdated convention, that big-time gangsters are the movers and shakers on the racetrack, simply isn’t true, at least in America. They may have played a larger role at tracks in the twentieth century, but TV needs to recognize that the world of the Five Families doesn’t dominate here. Racing owners come from every walk of life, like the horses themselves: blue-bloods and up-and-comers alike all want to try their hand at this exciting game.
The show did feature some more interesting characters that brought the track to life, but such facts were overshadowed by the depressingly large figure of the “Jewish mobster” extraordinaire. The show chose to focus on Bernstein, rather than the vibrant figures making up most of the game. It’s 2012. Haven’t we move past the image of the gangster, Jewish or not, controlling everyone around him? Hollywood should dig deep to portray real people, not just worn-out stereotypes that turn off viewers and portray real-life environments as nothing more than pale shadows of what they’re really like.