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Never Let Horse Sense Get in the Story's Way

January 07, 2007|Peter Schneider

I've been a staff writer on a number of comedy and drama television shows. I'm also an equine veterinarian who used to work at the racetracks in Southern California. When it would come up in conversation with a show runner or network producer, I'd get: "Jeez, racehorses! You know we should talk, 'cause I got a horse story I'd like to tell."

When I was pitching my own horse script, I discovered that television had its own idea of what horse doctoring--actually, any type of doctoring--is about. Suddenly the pitcher became the pitchee, and their pitch always began with a Famous Horse. At various times their version of Seabiscuit was a quadriplegic, had become hysterically blind, or had testicles that cured cancer.

But it was the medically impossible stories that got me. Their "better than Seabiscuit" story went like this: Famous Horse comes roaring down the home stretch, nostrils flared, and mysteriously drops dead, bringing an overflow crowd to tears. Just as mysteriously, Famous Horse reappears for breakfast the morning of the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win America's biggest race.

Nothing I'd read in the veterinary literature--maybe it's different for humans--supported the death-back-to-life concept. The problem is, nothing in my real-life experience apparently had quite as much appeal. The story I wanted to do involved a 2-year-old filly I diagnosed with colic (a severe stomachache). It was hours away from death. We operated and took out 10 feet of her gut. She became a marvelous racehorse and broodmare, bringing in big bucks for a poor Spanish family of 10, which donated the money to its community.

The producer rubbed his furrowed brow: "Sounds like 'Seabiscuit' to me."

"Actually, it's nothing like 'Seabiscuit,'" I said.

"Yeah, well, it's exactly like 'Seabiscuit.' Why can't you come up with a [dirty word] disease that brings a [dirty word] racehorse back to life?"

Of course, I told the temperamental, science-mangling, silly something or other that a well-scripted story, much like "Seabiscuit," doesn't have a horse rising from the dead. Not that it mattered.

One network executive suggested that Famous Horse and Famous Horse Owner should both come down with Alzheimer's, "like what" his grandfather has. Again, I began my "not really sure vet research supports that" speech, but no. If grandpa has it, he insisted, horses must get it too.

Then there was the producer who wondered if Famous Horse could donate a liver to Famous Horse's Brother because of brother's excessive use of Lasix. A couple of things: Famous Horse doesn't have a spare liver to donate. If he does offer it up, he won't be around for very long. As for Lasix, if Famous Horse didn't race well, a vet would look down its trachea (with an endoscope) for blood weeping up the respiratory tree. If there was blood, I explained that the vet would treat with Lasix, a diuretic (with no long-term liver side effects) that makes horses urinate more. That decreases blood volume and pressure on the capillaries in the lungs.

When I finished, the producer had his feet up on the desk and was reading the newspaper. Later, he asked if I'd seen "Seabiscuit."

So maybe that's it, the core of my discontent. I didn't write "Seabiscuit," and the script I did write no one wants to buy. But I've adjusted; television is all about going with the flow, and I have a new idea. It's not "Seabiscuit." It's about two good-looking horses falling in love. One dances like Gene Kelly, and the other--oh, forget it, I know people who'll love it.

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