04/09/2011 6:13PM

Life at Ten Thousand


The news that John Velazquez was "fined" $10,000 by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission this week for the events surrounding the dreary performance of Life at Ten in the 2010 running of the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic was enough to set a sane man's teeth on edge.

How many ways can you spell "scapegoat"?

Compared to the Uncle Mo bubble that burst for Velazquez in the Wood Memorial, the ten grand is small change. Also, Velazquez apparently took a deal, preferring to end the agony rather than fight tooth and claw to clear his name of any wrongdoing. His transgression was to have informed ESPN on-air talent that Life at Ten didn't seem to be herself, but not to have presented the same observations to an official veterinarian while, in a parallel plot-line, the presiding stewards were informed of the jockey's comments to ESPN, but did not order the official veterinarian to examine the filly.

When the gates opened, the worries of Velasquez came painfully true. Life at Ten was lifeless, and her rider could do nothing more than steer her carefully around the course, bringing her back in one piece. Yes, it looked bad. And folks lost money in the tote. But only the heartless could feel anything less than compassion for Life at Ten that evening at Churchill Downs.

Such sentiments seemed to get lost in a firestorm of post-race protest, though. Gamblers felt robbed, especially given what they learned later, that trainer Todd Pletcher also expressed some concerns about Life at Ten in the paddock, and that afterwards Pletcher suggested Life at Ten had experienced an adverse reaction to the legal diuretic Salix, administered the day of the race. Velazquez took care of the filly, but who took care of the fans?

This might sound strange, but it is possible, having disclosed his lingering doubts to ESPN's Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss, Velazquez felt he'd gotten the information off his chest and on the record. Such is the pervasive -- and perverse -- influence of media communication these days, both personal and commercial. Of course, if Velazquez had serious concerns, his next stop whould have been the starting gate to consult with the official vet. But he didn't. It was the jockey's call and he made it, just as the very best jockeys, like Velazquez, have done for decades.

"I can't tell you how many times I thought a horse was a little quiet going to the gate, like John did that day," said Hall of Famer Gary Stevens. "If I'd scratched them all, I'd have lost a lot of winners, and a whole lot of business. More often than not, whatever might have been bothering them wasn't an issue by the time they left the gate."

Although the circumstances were heightened by the atmosphere of the Breeders' Cup, it was something Jerry Bailey himself had experienced many time before in his Hall of Fame career.

"I rode a horse for Pletcher named Trippi, and most jockeys would have scratched him every time he ran, just because he was so much worse in warm-up than he was going full speed after he left the gate," Bailey said. "There's always the possibility that the horse will actually feel better and be better when he hits full flight."

The Ladies Classic was run on Nov. 5, 2010. This issue was hanging five long months before the Velazquez plea deal came down. Congress moves faster than that. Still to come is a resolution of the complaints against state steward John Veitch, who is lawyered up and continues to serve in his position, currently at Keeneland and soon to be at Churchill Downs. Call me crazy, but if there has been conflicting testimony between steward  Veitch and jockey Velazquez in the KHRC investigation, shouldn't that steward recuse himself from races in which that jockey rides? Like, maybe, the Kentucky Oaks, when the same John Velazquez will be riding favored R Heat Lightning?

Of the $10,000 paid by Velazquez in the settlement, half went to the KHRC and the other half, if you can believe it, was donated to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. While there may be technicalities involved, requiring some token amount be exacted by the commission to make it all official, how about a more humble split, like maybe $9,999 to help jockeys who have been paralyzed in service of racing's bottom line and a robust dollar for a couple of No. 2 racing commission pencils? Velazquez currently serves as chairman of the Jockeys' Guild Board of directors, and it is public record that he already has donated thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in efforts to aid his fellow riders. It is to his credit he got at least a part of this scandalous settlement steered in an honorable direction. 

Nevertheless, the fine goes on his record, in the very year Velazquez could be elected to the Hall of Fame. Bailey described the ruling as "very unfair," but added, "I think John took the very high road. If he wasn't outraged, maybe I shouldn't be outraged."

No, it's okay. Be outraged.