03/11/2011 3:29PM

The Stewards' Responsibility


The voluminous report on L'Affaire Life At Ten by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRA) nearly outweighs President Obama's Health Care Bill but, as the wheels of justice turn slowly in the Bluegrass State, we are only a step or two closer to discovering what went on prior to, during and after the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic on Nov. 5 when the 3.80-1 second choice did no running at all, causing her backers an excruciating amount of anguish.

That jockey Johnn Velazquez was unhappy with the way Life At Ten was warming up is incontovertible. He said as much to Jerry Bailey on television as the horses were going down to the start. That trainer Todd Pletcher was concerned about Life At Ten's condition in the paddock has also been documented. That John Veitch, Chief Steward for the Commonwealth of Kentucky neglected to take a blood sample of Life At Ten immediatley after the race is agreed upon by all.

The key statement in the Report appears to be "Becraft (KHRC steward John Becraft) said that he mentioned to the other Stewards that the veterinarians should be called about Life At Ten. Becraft said that Veitch responded "if we do that we might as well scratch the horse." Veitch denies hearing these comments from Becraft, but acknowledges Becraft might have said it." Veitch denies responding, "if we do that we might as well scratch the horse.""

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as well as a possible failure of memory on the part of Mr. Veitch. The communication channel that might have saved the betting public and Life At Ten's connections a great deal of trouble should have gone Velazquez to the gate stewards or the starter to the veterinarians. If those channels had been properly followed, Life At Ten might have been scratched to both the short and longterm benefit of all.

In Britain, a performance like that of Life At Ten in a race if the magnitude of the Ladies Classic- or any other race would have prompted a stewards' inquiry almost as soon as the race had been concluded. Jockey, trainer and all stewards concerned would have been called to Jockey Club headquarters in London no later than the following Monday or Tuesday for a hearing. And the results of that hearing would, in most cases, have been issued within a week after the incident.

That there was a major foul-up at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5 there is no doubt, but it is not nearly the tragedy that occurred in the 2006 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

That was the race in which Barbaro broke down a hundred yards out of the gate. The injury he sustained that day ultimately led to his death.

That rider Edgar Prado, trainer Michael Matz, the stewards of the Maryland Jockey Club and the track veterinarians collectively allowed Barbaro to run in the Preakness calls the actions of all concerned into question. A little history helps to explain why.

Barbaro was a horse with sensitive underpinnings. Perhaps this was why Matz started his career on turf, an easier surface than dirt. His first three races were on grass. His first six races were also well spaced, allowing him plenty of time to recover after each outing.

Barbaro had 46 days between his maiden score at Delaware and his victory in the Laurel Futurity. It was another 43 days before his third start, a vcitory in the Tampa Bay Derby. He would make his dirt debut in the Holy Bull Stakes, in which he wore front bandages for the only time, off just a 34-day absence, then won the Florida Derby off a 56-day layoff. Barbaro would then go in the Kentucky Derby after a 35-day rest.

The average number of days off for Barbaro in his first six races was 43 days, just a tad over six weeks. But as the winner of the Kentucky Derby, he was expected to run on just 14 days notice in the Preakness. Was that too short for him? Subsequent events suggest that it was.

And so does Barbaro's warrm-up prior to the Preakness. He was difficult going down to the start. Then, once loaded, he broke through the gate. Was Barbaro trying to tell us something, as horses frequently attempt to do when they are not right? Was he in distress, being asked to do something, i.e., run on just 14 days notice, and perhaps not fully recovered from his Kentucky Derby exertions? We will never know, but what we do know is that after having broken through the gate, Barbaro was immediately reloaded for the start. A few seconds later, his racing career, and ultimately his life, were at an end.

Why didn't the gate vet have a closer look at Barbaro after he had broken through the gate? Was there pressure on keeping the Derby winner in the race in front of 100,000 people and a national television audience? Or did trainer, rider, stewards and vets really believe that all was right with Barbaro on the day?

The Barbaro tragedy should have alerted stewards in every jurisdiction to monitor suspect pre-race behavior more closely. That that has not been done is evident in the case of Life At Ten.