Plenty of Blame - By Eric Mitchell

 (Originally published in the July 9, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Public hearings are supposed to provide answers and resolution. Unfortunately, the administrative hearing held June 28-30 to determine whether Kentucky Chief Steward John Veitch violated racing regulations only muddied the issues further and raised more questions.

Here’s what we know.

Veitch is under scrutiny for allowing Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (gr. I) second-choice Life At Ten to start after her rider, John Velazquez, told ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey during a post-parade interview that the mare was not warming up well. Velazquez did not notify any of the veterinarians stationed on the track about his concerns. Instead, ESPN producer Amy Zimmerman called the steward’s office and relayed what Velazquez had told Bailey and a national TV audience. What exactly Zimmerman said is disputed. During the hearing Zimmerman said she relayed to the stewards that Velazquez said his horse “ain’t right.” Veitch recalled the message was vague— that the stewards needed to watch the ESPN broadcast. Nothing more specific.

We also know Life At Ten was not acting right in the saddling paddock. Trainer Todd Pletcher said so but asked Velazquez to take her out onto the track anyway to see if she would “wake up.” David Vance, who manages the racing stable of Life At Ten’s owner Candy DeBartolo, said the mare had acted similarly before other races.

The mare’s demeanor did not improve. We understand the jockey’s in a tough spot. He is Pletcher’s first-call rider and it’s the Breeders’ Cup. Summoning a state veterinarian and telling him your horse isn’t right minutes before the Ladies’ Classic is risky business for a rider. Having said that, jockeys have done so in the past. Ask Garrett Gomez, who refused to ride a horse at Keeneland last fall and lost mounts.

Was Velazquez convinced the mare would be OK in the race? Apparently not, by the way he broke her out of the gate at a lope and never engaged the field at any point.

During the hearing Veitch said none of the stewards saw anything outwardly concerning about Life At Ten as she warmed up. She didn’t appear in distress. She wasn’t lame. She wasn’t bathed in sweat.

Here is where the case enters a great gray space. Association steward Brooks Becraft said he thought Velazquez’ comments would have warranted the stewards contacting a veterinarian on the track. Veitch countered if the stewards had done so, they may as well have gone ahead and scratched the horse. Veitch then added that stewards aren’t qualified to make such a call; that they “never contact a veterinarian on a veterinary or medical opinion. We are not trained that way.”

The stewards—Veitch, Becraft, and Rick Leigh—then disagreed on what they have the authority to do independently and what requires a decision by Veitch as the chief steward. Can there really be so much ambiguity among the state’s top regulators about their responsibilities at the track? One of the most troubling facts of the case is despite her obviously poor performance, Life At Ten was not tested immediately after the race. This is Veitch’s biggest sin in the whole sordid episode that cost bettors worldwide many hundreds of thousands of dollars and tarnished the Breeders’ Cup. After all, not only was Life At Ten a low-odds horse that performed poorly, but she is trained by Pletcher, who has had his own brushes with medication positives. He served a 10-day suspension after the filly Wait a While tested positive for procaine following a third-place finish in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) at Santa Anita. Wait a While had been treated prior to the championships with penicillin-G, which contains procaine, and apparently the recommended withdrawal period wasn’t adequate for her. Pletcher was also suspended for 45 days in 2006 when traces of mepivacaine, a Class 2 local anesthetic, were found in Tales of Glory, who finished third in a race at Saratoga Aug. 14, 2004, and was ruled unplaced in the race.

In a statement after the Breeders’ Cup, Pletcher said Life At Ten had trained “brilliantly” up to the race, had been examined on a regular basis by her primary care vet, and that her pre-race blood sample had been subjected to comprehensive instrumental screening analysis—consistent with analysis performed on post-race samples (taken the following day)—and that no prohibited substances had been found. After the Breeders’ Cup, Pletcher said Life At Ten seemed to have had an adverse reaction to the anti-bleeder medication she got prior to the race and tied up.

When all is said and done, it appears many more people than Veitch can share the blame for letting this mare down. The trainer, jockey, on-track vets, and stewards all had questions in their minds, and none of those questions translated to action. So she started, ran poorly, and left bettors feeling duped and empty-handed. 

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