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. 

30 Comments

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poormansracehorse

The other bit of inaction that I don't understand is why bettors holding tickets on Life at Ten weren't advised to hold their tickets. When horses are gate scratched or otherwise deemed to have not run, it is usual to refund the money bet on that horse.

If the bettors has been given refunds this would have gone away overnight.

06 Jul 2011 9:57 AM
slee

I agree completely that "many more people than Veitch can share the blame".  When a horse might be in distress/ill/lame/"off" in the post parade there are 4 choices -

the horse is ok, and they let her run

the horse is not ok, and they don't let her run

the horse is ok, and they DON'T let her run

the horse is not ok, and they DO let her run

So 1/2 the choices are right and 1/2 the choices are wrong, or so say the statistics.  But making that correct choice in a matter of a minute or 2 behind the gate while the crew is trying to load the race, is not so straightforward.

To me, the finger points at the groom, the handler, the trainer and the jockey.  They know the horse and the vets and stewards don't.  If she's a little bit off, THEY will know, not strangers.

(and how ironic that this mare's name used to be "Unreadable" - her signs and symptoms were not well read!)

Veitch's big mistake came after the race, in not doing a complete exam and not following up, and, sorry, but "the testing barn was full" does nothing to protect the horse, the owners, the fans and the bettors.

Like other cases of injury or harm, Life at Ten's legacy may not be her stellar wins, but a higher level of sensitivity and a better pattern of communication between and among all parties.  IF the stewards, vets, trainers, jockeys AND tv coverage can bring themselves to agree that delaying a race 3 or 4 minutes to check into a horse's condition, and agree that NOBODY is punished for being cautious, then Life at Ten's "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day", may save other horses and jockeys and bettors at other tracks on other days.

06 Jul 2011 12:49 PM
Joy Elliott

strange,, from my living room,,,I commented that the mare looked dullwhile in the saddling area.

06 Jul 2011 4:00 PM
Your Only Friend

Jockey should not be only one held responsible......Veitch should also have horse examined after race.....looks as if lot of experts had their heads in the sand on that race.

06 Jul 2011 7:51 PM
Mokey

I'm not sure why Todd Pletcher hasn't been fined, or very held responsible as he was the one who told the jockey the horse wasn't right! He allowed the horse to run, did nothing himself to find out what was wrong with her. This is the third time in a Breeder's Cup Race Mr. Pletcher had a problem horse - twice with Quality Road - not able to break from a starting gate and the next year not running in the top five ??? Also now has one horse who died of a rare cancer and another favorite "mo" turn sick?  What is going on???

06 Jul 2011 8:35 PM
Anncat

It is unconscionable that Veitch did not order testing of the mare.  Apparently common sense is not included in anyone's job description.

06 Jul 2011 9:39 PM
sceptre

Here are two irrefutable facts:

Both Veitch and Dr. Bramlege were given the "heads-up" (advance notice) that there were potential issues with Life At Ten. Veitch chose no action whatsoever, and Bramlege failed to single out Life At Ten when communicating to the on track vet team. Advance "warnings" such as was the case with Life At Ten are extremely rare occurances-it's not as if a Veitch or a Bramlege were armed with enough prior experiences (with "warnings" such as this) to believe the "heads-up" should be ignored. For me, it's that simple.    

06 Jul 2011 10:56 PM
kincsem

Mokey,

I couldn't agree more! One of Devil May Care's  first symptoms was a mysterious GI tract problem - hello, Uncle Mo! It is OBVIOUS that Pletcher is stressing the immune systems of his stakes horses pretty severely. Velasquez & John Veitch had nothing to do with why Life At Ten looked like she was running in a haze. Veitch was probably making sure that nothing could be pinned on Pletcher, by not testing the mare. One does not want to make the big money trainers angry.

But the buck stops with the trainer. Period. When is Teflon Todd going to be held accountable?

07 Jul 2011 12:19 AM
jamesb

"When all is said and done, it appears many more people than Veitch can share the blame for letting this mare down."

Blame everyone, hold no one accountable. I believe I've heard this song before.

07 Jul 2011 7:34 AM
Bland

The sin was in not ordering a test regardless of what barn she went to.

Why?  Because over $1million was bet on her and the bettors need somebody to protect them.

07 Jul 2011 10:14 AM
Linda in Texas

If nothing was wrong with Life at Ten, seems like a lot of folks are trying real hard to cover up something. Me thinks they do protest too much.

If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is most probably 100 per cent a duck.

In this instance, too many people are ducking!

07 Jul 2011 12:12 PM
Ida Lee

I wish I had not read this article. Life At Ten, one of my beloved Mares, was put in danger and now everyone connected with her (except her jockey) are screaming we didn't see anything... Of course, there was something wrong!! I was watching from HOME and I knew there was something wrong. Oh forget it...I'm too pissed to continue.

07 Jul 2011 3:22 PM
Stellar Jayne

Eric - It also seems Pletcher should have been held accountable.  It seems politics might be at work here given his standing in the industry?  The bottom line is - none of this is fair to Life At Ten's career! One thing I learned, in spite of the constant repetition of '...it is all about the horse and its safety....'  I say bull @#%@.

07 Jul 2011 5:35 PM
Needler in Virginia

Mr Veitch?? How far down the information chain did he enter the picture? Fairly far down, it appears, as both trainer and jockey were talking to reporters about how the mare just didn't "seem right" long before Mr Veitch knew of any problem at all. AND we all saw BOTH trainer and jockey comment, to reporters live and in living color, on how LaT just wasn't herself that day. As far as I'm concerned, the problem lies directly at the feet of the guy getting the big bucks: Todd Pletcher, and didn't he do a real bang-up Trainer of the Year job that weekend? I mean, REALLY...just look at how well Life At Ten AND Quality Road ran. My gosh! Who could ask for more? ME, for one.........

Cheers and safe trips.

07 Jul 2011 9:26 PM
Dawn in MN

If I were in Velazquez's irons that day I'd like to think that I would have done something different.  On the other hand I'm not surprised he didn't.  

If he did everything in his power to get her scratched he would have risked a good deal of ire from the fans.  He probably would have paid the price of losing mounts.  In hindsight, considering that her problem was supposedly just a bad reaction to medication Velazquez would have been the scapegoat.  

Velazquez is excused in my book because he never "prevailed" on her; he let her off the hook.  If she had broke well and had run, fine, but since she didn't his call was the best one.  He went into that gate, and made a call on the break.   The amount of pressure a jockey is under excuses him in my book.    

I hold the trainer completely accountable. Period. Get those overdressed "horsemen" out of the stands and on the ground with the animals they are charged to train. I don't see what part of responsible training involves wearing Armani in the stands, while a sick filly goes to the gate.  

Life At Ten looked completely wrong in the televised coverage.  I turned to my husband and said something to that effect before it was ever mentioned on TV.  I had seen her before, and like others, I could tell from my living room couch that she was not o.k. that day.  She looked dull and lackluster.  I was truly horrified when they loaded her in the gate.

Oh, and I agree...she should have gone straight to the test barn.  Until then I never believed those who said racing was Dirty, but this incident makes me wonder.  It's right up there with Big Brown's Belmont.  

When an incident like this occurs during the Breeders Cup, and no decision is made until the casual fans have completely forgotten to care about the outcome it makes the game look Dirty. This witch-hunt, some eight months later is inexcusable.  Racing needs something like a referee, or an umpire to make a call immediately.  

More proof that a national governing body is desperately needed.

08 Jul 2011 7:11 AM
AngelaInAbilene

In racetrack "chain of command," the TRAINER is responsible for EVERY aspect of EVERY horse in their barn.  Example:  Someone leaves a can of Coke in the shedrow and a horse tips it over and drinks it.  That horse runs, goes to the Spit Barn and tests positive for caffeine.  It does not matter one whit the circumstances leading to the positive, the TRAINER is responsible.  (S)He is fined, given days, etc.

In the LAT case, the TRAINER KNEW the horse wasn't right and sent her to the gate anyway.  [slee- to blame her groom (handler) is equivelant to blaming a clerk for some of the ridiculous legislation coming from Congress.]

A Stewards purpose is to see that nothing violates the State Racing regulations.  It is their job to see that something like this, LAT, does NOT happen and if it does, to investigate and hold appropriate person(s) accountable.  As soon as Veitch was made aware there was a potential problem, he should have INVESTIGATED the allegation.  As the Chief Steward for the State of Kentucky, he failed miserably.  The buck stops with him.

08 Jul 2011 9:27 AM
slee

I agree Pletcher should be held responsible, but AngelInAbileen, my question about the groom and handlers has to do with raising red flags.  The groom has a lot more contact with their charges than a clerk does with legislation.  Let's say LAT's groom told Pletcher in the saddling enclosure or in the stable before saddling: "she looks sick" or "I think something is wrong" - would Pletcher listen?  Or does he run a barn where people are afraid to speak up?

In a former life I was a lowly part-time hot walker but even so it was OUR JOB to report any oddities or changes in behavior about any horses to our boss who did an evaluation and then either said it was ok, or called the trainer or the vet.  We were told over and over that we were the eyes and ears of the trainer.  And if we did NOT report something that was found later to be a problem, we were in trouble.  And, in at least 1 case, jobless.

Remember Secretariat's Wood Memorial, where he finished 3rd behind Angle Light and Sham?  And after the race it was revealed he had an abscess in his mouth?  The story also goes that his exercise rider had reported a problem the day before to somebody in the barn, asking that Secretariat be checked by Lucien Lauren, the traine,r because he was tossing his head around and not reacting normally to the bit.  But the message was lost someplace.  If that's true, how many betting dollars were lost because Secretariat was in pain and didn't run his race?

It should be the job of everybody involved with the horse to look out for the horse's health and to speak up when needed.  A good barn needs to have good communication UP and DOWN, and that, too, in the end, is Pletcher's responsibility.

08 Jul 2011 1:13 PM
smarie

I agree wholeheartedly with Dawn in MN. Why was Pletcher in the stands? He knew there was a problem with Life At Ten; he should have been down with the horse! Everyone failed this mare that day. Everyone that the owner entrusted her to failed her. Thank goodness no one was injured or killed during the race. Mr. Veitch has an excuse for everything. It is too bad that no one here is willing to step up (except Johnny V. who did so rather reluctantly), admit fault and see to it that things like this don't happen again. Horse racing continually shoots itself in the foot. How many articles have I read about meetings, committees, etc. who are trying to improve racing's image and lure more fans to the track? What actually gets done? Not much. Horses are still being drugged, trainers continue to train even though they're known abusers, owners send their horses to trainers like this, racehorses are being overbred and so many wind up being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico - the list goes on and on. Yet, nothing much ever changes. It is no wonder that racing can't attract many new fans. And after all this time and all the investigations, nothing has come of the Life At Ten debacle.

08 Jul 2011 1:43 PM
Jon

Pletcher got off scott free.

I think Veitch should have passed on the info he got to the track vets also being an ex trainer he could have seen what millions saw on TV.

Maybe they are afraid if the truth comes out and with "Life at Ten" is racing recently her value has dropped way down they maybe lawsuits filed by the owner.

08 Jul 2011 8:23 PM
AngelaInAbilene

slee- I have had my trainers license for 20+ years.  When my people relay information, I listen, investigate and evaluate.  

It is a grooms responsibility to report anything and everything, good and bad concerning the horses they rub, to the TRAINER.  In this case, the trainer was already aware that LAT was off.  

My point, you simply CANNOT put any of this off on a groom or hot walker.  It was the trainer who was responsable to pass the Starter with a sound and ready  horse and it was the Stewards job to see that the trainer had done so.  They BOTH FAILED!

09 Jul 2011 9:27 AM
Mike Relva

I stated months ago Pletcher would skate. If I could say one thing to him it would be "congrats on winning trainer of the year,sure LAT is really proud of you".

10 Jul 2011 9:15 PM
tjconway

I have seen horses who have looked "listless" in the post parade and went on to win the race. One example of this was Unbridled after he won the Ky. Derby and came to Arlington Park.

This must not happen again.........Folks!

At the end of the day, the bettors should have got their refund in this rare case and Life at Ten should have been declared a non-starter (after the fact). Then all this would have been no harm no foul! ALWAYS KEEP YOUR TICKETS!!!!!!!!!

Also, could natural "hormone imbalance" have been the problem???????

11 Jul 2011 4:04 AM
tenmd

I know I am getting into the fray a bit late, but I have a few things to say. Firstly, John Veitch is one of the most honerable individuals in racing and I find it quite distasteful that the KY Racing Commission has selected him as their scapegoat.

  Secondly, lets examine the other possible senario and see how that would be received by the betting public, Racing Commission, and owners and trainers involved, and that is...what would have happened if LAT had been scratched by the stewards. There were several vets trackside with a much clearer view of this horse during post parade and at the gate and nothing of concern was seen by them. So what if the stewards had scratched her and then no reason was found for the scratch? What kind of trouble would that have brought upon the stewards? Kind of a damned if you do and damned if you don't deal as I see it.  But in reality...the responsibility lies with Pletcher and no one else!

12 Jul 2011 10:10 AM
Needler in Virginia

ABSOLUTELY TRUE, tenmd, ALL OF YOUR POST!! Mr Veitch did nothing wrong, but he's not a Trainer of the Year, is he?

Cheers and safe trips.

12 Jul 2011 6:27 PM
JerseyBoy

tenmd:

I like your post.

I have an additional observation. If we cannot trust the judgement of John Velazquez, who can we trust?. We might as well close shop.

This was a mistake. One should only be held accountable for violating previously established laws, practices and procedures. Instead, what we have here are people being assassinated for violating the moral sensibilities of the self-righteous. It is un-American.

13 Jul 2011 6:47 AM
quarterhossgal

As many have said the trainer is entrusted with the care of the horse. He delegates responsibility to the groom, handler etc. He knew the mare was not right she should have never left the paddock without an exam by a vet.  Only if she was cleared should she have gone on the track. Life at Ten was fortunate she didn't suffer life threatening results because of bad human judgement.

13 Jul 2011 12:21 PM
frenchykatz

I think the bottom line is that nobody had the best interest of the horse in mind. Nobody had her back except maybe Valaquez during the race to "not persevere" with her. I was afraid the entire race that she would go down. Why wouldn't you test a horse like this post race?

13 Jul 2011 4:49 PM
Lorie

Life At Ten is old news they will never come up with a good ruling on that, but I do think Pletcher should be held accountable for his horses and everyone at his barn !! What I am worried about, is how soon he plans on running Mo, OMG he has only been back in training a few weeks and they think he is ready for a tuff Gr. 1 race . That say's alot about how he trains I hope Mo pulls up ok and has no relaps. I just do not see how he could be fit enough to run a race like that. good luck Mo

13 Jul 2011 6:42 PM
AngelaInAbilene

"...John Veitch is one of the most honerable individuals in racing...scapegoat."

"But in reality...the responsibility lies with Pletcher and no one else!"

tenmd 12 Jul 2011 10:10 AM

I do not personally know Steward Veitch, I have rarely been called before the Stewards.  Up until this incident, he appears to have done a fine job safeguarding the integrity of racing.  IMHO, in this instance, he failed.

Everyone involved, EXCEPT Pletcher, was in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.

So why has Pletcher not been held accountable?  I believe, were it any other trainer in any other race, the trainer would have, at the very least been fined and gotten days.  There is more than plenty of blame to go around but the bottom line is, it is the TRAINERS responsibility.

There is a HUGE amount of responsibility placed on a trainer.  We are accountable EVERYTHING involving our horses, barns and employees.  Even some things which we have very little if no control over.  We know that when we take our license out.  Apparently, Mr. Pletcher is special and the rules no longer apply to him.    

15 Jul 2011 9:27 AM
AngelaInAbilene

I apologize for the rant.  I am just sick and tired of everyone giving an excuse for everything.  It appears to me personal responsibility has gone the way of the dinosaurs and it just makes me sick!  

15 Jul 2011 9:34 AM

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