By Ray Paulick
If John Veitch, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's chief steward, is involved in the investigation looking into the Life at Ten incident on Breeders' Cup Friday, then neither the KHRC nor the Breeders' Cup is taking what happened very seriously.
Veitch is a man of integrity, and I consider him a friend. But the role of the KHRC stewards, including Veitch, has to be examined as part of this investigation, too. The wagering public and the owners of Life At Ten deserve a thorough and completely unbiased review of what became a major embarrassment for the Breeders' Cup and Thoroughbred racing, especially in Kentucky.
Here is the sequence of events in the lead-up to the Ladies' Classic, where Life At Ten was listless in the paddock, uncomfortable in the post-parade and warm-ups, and was eased in the race itself as the 7-2 second choice in the wagering. More than $7 million was wagered on the Ladies' Classic, with millions more bet on multi-race wagers.
ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey, a retired Hall of Fame jockey, asked jockey John Velazquez during warm-ups how Life At Ten was doing. “Right now I'm not sure, Jerry, to tell you the truth,” Velazquez said on live television. “She's not warming up the way she normally does.” Bailey asked if she was reluctant, and Velazquez responded, “Yes she is.”
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ESPN commentator Randy Moss, a veteran racing journalist, observed that Life At Ten “does not appear to be warming up very smoothly.”
“The reluctance is what I don't like,” said Bailey. “She's not like this.” Bailey then backpedaled a bit, excusing Life At Ten's reluctance by saying she might be unfamiliar with the track and the lights. “She looks like she's much better now,” he added. “I wouldn't be too worried.”
ESPN host Joe Tessitore then added, “We understand that the stewards are now asking the vets to actually take a look at Life At Ten when she gets to the starting gate.”
Tessitore may have misspoken. In fact, ESPN producer Amy Zimmerman called the stewards from the television production truck and suggested they take a look at the interview with Velazquez. Zimmerman told the Paulick Report the steward she spoke with answered that the stewards were watching the interview. The KHRC offered a different version, saying through a spokesman: “When the stewards watched the feed, the interview with Velasquez was ending. Velasquez was only heard by the stewards to say that she wasn't warming up well. No mention was made by ESPN to the stewards of any possible issues with the horse.”
ESPN stayed on the Life At Ten story. “She's choppy, she's stiff, she's not warming up smoothly at all,” said Moss.
“She looks a little wide,” Bailey observed. “Instead of swinging her legs straight back and forth she seems a little wide.”
ESPN reporter Jay Privman then caught up with Todd Pletcher, who left his regular spot in the horsemen's lounge and went trackside to get a closer look. Pletcher said “the filly was very quiet in the paddock…I don't know what Johnny is feeling.”
Several minutes after the first interview with Velazquez, Bailey went back to him again.
“Is she getting any better?” he asked.
“Not really,” Velazquez replied. “Could it be the lights or is it mostly physical?” Bailey followed. “I don't know Jerry. I'm not sure.”
Another ESPN reporter, Jeannine Edwards, said she spoke off-camera with Dr. Larry Bramlage, a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners “On-Call” veterinary team. “Dr. Bramlage said vets on the ground have not been made aware of the situation,” Edwards reported.
As the horses for the Ladies' Classic were led into the starting gate, Bailey added, “She did not look like I think she should have looked.”
“I guarantee you Johnny is going to be a little cautious,” said Moss.
Moss was right. Velazquez never pushed Life At Ten from the time the gates opened, and the 5-year-old daughter of Malibu Moon was eased in the race.
“She obviously was in some kind of discomfort before she went into the gate,” Bailey said afterwards.
Added Moss: “The betting public has a right to be pretty doggone upset at what happened.”
The betting public should be upset. So should Candy DeBartolo, who owns Life At Ten. She put up a lot of money to run in the Ladies' Classic, and it's obvious her horse should not have been allowed to race. That's what Pletcher said following this debacle.
But was Pletcher in position to do something about it? How about Velazquez, who felt compelled to tell a national television audience there was something wrong with Life At Ten, but apparently was too timid to say anything to the three veterinarians stationed at the starting gate? Why did the stewards not communicate anything to the vets on the ground when a respected and well-known television producer telephoned and alerted them to what Velazquez was saying? Why, three days after the Ladies' Classic, had no one with the KHRC caught up with Velazquez to inquire about the incident?
There is no evidence pointing toward wrongdoing (i.e., that someone “got to” Life At Ten and eliminated her from contention), but the KHRC should have immediately singled her out for post-race drug testing to rule out that possibility. Why did stewards not have her tested?
This appears to be a case of paralysis, where events were unfolding that had never happened before – a jockey saying on national television his horse was not warming up properly, a trainer saying his horse was unusually quiet, an experienced Hall of Fame jockey turned TV commentator noticing problems with a horse's body language, a TV producer calling stewards to alert them of the situation with minutes to go before a race.
There is precedent for the Breeders' Cup to get involved. In the early 1990s, after a series of mishaps occurred in several runnings of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, a special committee was formed to look into whether there were any common threads that led to the incidents.
The Breeders' Cup must insist on a completely independent review of the facts, and that investigating panel should include a member of the media and/or a representative of the wagering public. What occurred on national TV should never have happened, and the only way to prevent it from repeating is to gather all the facts, let the chips fall where they may, and learn from this experience.
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