Scapegoat - By Lenny Shulman

(Originally published in the September 10, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Lenny Shulman

As thousands of visitors from around the continent and the world descend on Kentucky for Keeneland’s September yearling sale and October race meeting and the November Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, they may smell the odor of scapegoat emanating from the office of chief racing steward John Veitch.

After a nearly one-year investigation the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has concluded that Veitch and jockey John Velazquez acted inappropriately during last year’s Life At Ten Breeders’ Cup fiasco—charging Veitch with five violations of state regulations.

Velazquez accepted a $10,000 fine after admitting that mistakes were made—but not necessarily by him.

Inconveniently for the commission, Veitch has denied wrongdoing, and state law gives stewards broad latitude in decision-making.

This one-of-a-kind mess stems from the 2010 Ladies’ Classic (gr. I), when second-favorite Life At Ten was allowed to jog around the racetrack, burning millions of bettors’ dollars, after her trainer, Todd Pletcher, noted “she was acting a little unusual” in the paddock and her jockey, Velazquez, told a national TV audience “she’s not warming up the way she usually does.” A TV producer phoned Veitch and told him about
Velazquez’ interview.

It is not Veitch’s job to scratch a horse based on a third-party phone call, which, by the way, misquoted what Velazquez actually said. At that point Veitch decided to allow the veterinarians present to do their jobs—observe the horses and make their own decisions.

There were 11 KHRC and Breeders’ Cup vets on the racetrack, in addition to several on-call vets on the grounds. According to testimony given in the KHRC investigation, at least seven of them knew, before the race, about the Velazquez interview, or of a “rumor” that there were concerns about a horse. None took any action regarding the filly. After observing her on the track, none thought she was unfit to race. 

Life At Ten’s condition was internal. Pletcher, although feeling there was something amiss with the filly, sent her out to the racetrack. Despite state law that “trainers shall bear primary responsibility for the health and physical fitness” of the horse, Pletcher was not sanctioned by the KHRC. None of the vets—nor the other two stewards—were sanctioned for doing exactly what Veitch did.

Velazquez knew something was wrong from talking with Pletcher and warming up the horse. A week before he had complained to stewards when vets at Keeneland refused to scratch a horse at the request of rider Garrett Gomez. Thus, Velazquez knew if he alerted the vets to his doubts about Life At Ten, it would have meant an automatic scratch. He chose not to. Pletcher assistant Mike McCarthy testified that as Velazquez unsaddled
Life At Ten, he told McCarthy, “I knew it. I should’ve scratched her.”

Veitch had some tough calls to make during this Breeders’ Cup; some were found wanting. We didn’t agree with his decision not to send Life At Ten to the test barn after she raced so poorly. But Kentucky statues and regulations clearly leave such decisions to the stewards’ discretion.

The commission apparently thought Veitch would take a deal similar to Velazquez’. He has instead chosen to stand and fight the charges levied against him.

Veitch is a proud man who comes from generations of horsemen. He followed his father, Syl, also a trainer, into racing’s Hall of Fame, saying at the time that adding to his ancestors’ reputations “means everything.” Recently, he added, “I feel the reputations of my father and myself have been injured unnecessarily, and I would never accept a penalty for something I feel has been unreasonably applied. They’re looking for a scapegoat, and I am not willing to accept that.”

In his seven years as Kentucky’s chief steward, Veitch has established a reputation as a fair and impartial judge and has run a tight ship, free of controversy or scandal.

Why then does the KHRC continue to pursue Veitch, who played a minor part in this comedy of errors?

It may have something to do with a dispute between Veitch and KHRC executive director Lisa Underwood concerning a medication violation case against trainer Bernie Flint days before the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. Underwood wanted Veitch to issue a harsher sanction against Flint. Veitch disagreed, citing mitigating factors, and apparently a brouhaha ensued after Veitch’s position prevailed. Is a grudge trumping common sense here?

Unfortunately, continuing to fight will prove costly. Veitch’s legal fees have already far exceeded the $50,000 the Commonwealth has poured into the case. And if the commission decides to sanction Veitch, his lawyers will take the case to federal court, where both sides’ costs will escalate. We understand why Veitch is fighting, despite the emotional and financial pain to himself and his family. Perhaps we should ask the KHRC what’s to be gained by spending tens of thousands more on this witch hunt.

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