10/20/2011 11:05AM

Life At Ten incident still prompts questions

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Barbara D. Livingston
Life At Ten, John Velazquez up, trailed the field throughout last year's Ladies' Classic after appearing sluggish in the paddock and post parade. The incident brought about new policies to address gaps in communication between racing officials and regulatory officials.

The in-game interview is a fairly recent development in sports TV. In theory, it transports fans inside an event when a broadcaster interviews a coach or manager while the game unfolds. In reality, the responses from the participants are frequently bland, pushing fans away from the heart of the matter.

But an interview during the ESPN broadcast of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic on Friday Nov. 5, 2010, treated viewers to a rare bit of raw, unscripted reality TV. The Breeders’ Cup telecast has since 2008 conducted prerace, warm-up-period interviews with mounted jockeys. This time, commentator Jerry Bailey asked jockey John Velazquez on Life At Ten, the race’s second betting choice, how his filly was adapting to the Churchill Downs racing surface.

“Right now, I’m not sure, Jerry, to tell you the truth,” Velazquez replied. “She’s not warming up the way that she normally does.”

“Is she being a little reluctant for you at this point?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, she is,” said Velazquez.

Velazquez, shockingly, had not employed the usual numbing string of clichés, instead offering viewers a real peek behind the curtain. And that led to a maze of trouble.

Velazquez never expressed concern to one of the 11 veterinarians stationed around the racing oval, nor did any of the vets who heard of Velazquez’s comments take action. Three stewards, whose job it is to oversee everything that happens on the racetrack, chose not to act after being notified about Velazquez’s comments.

Had Life At Ten performed adequately, had she even finished middle of the pack, the situation might have blown over. But the horse put forth no real effort in the race and was eased across the finish, turning the Ladies’ Classic into a minor scandal.

The Life At Ten affair roused public anger that hasn’t fully subsided. Bettors holding tickets on the horse felt duped, and to many observers, it seemed obvious that someone – the jockey, a vet, stewards – should have insisted Life At Ten be scratched. The incident spurred a series of protocol changes announced earlier this week by the Breeders’ Cup, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and Churchill Downs, where the season-ending championship races will again be held, on Nov. 4-5.

The changes – including having an official monitor telecasts and other communications – seem intended to placate any lingering indignation, but the incident raised questions about fairness and transparency in racing. Prerace interviews, especially, pose their own set of issues. What kind of information should a rider divulge? Institutions like racing are supposed to be putting up windows where walls once stood, but there are limits to what a bettor can know. Horses warm up poorly, fail to show their best form, and burn money every day. It’s just that their riders aren’t talking on television. When Velazquez was interviewed immediately before post time, did the information give an advantage to bettors watching television? Did it put those who had already made a wager at a disadvantage?

Much of the blame for the Life At Ten situation has been laid at the feet of John Veitch, the chief Kentucky steward. Stewards, vets, and jockeys face tough choices once a horse passes through a prerace safety net and hints at problems during warm-up. The situation gets trickier when, as with Life At Ten, the problem does not involve lameness.

A KHRC investigation found probable cause last March that Velazquez might have violated three racing statutes and Veitch five statutes. Hearings were conducted in late June, and Velazquez paid a $10,000 fine while admitting no wrongdoing. Veitch has chosen to fight the charges. A hearing officer is expected to issue a report – probably not before December – including any recommended penalties for Veitch, for the KHRC to consider.

“Basically, I have no regrets,” Veitch, 66, said in a recent telephone interview. “There was nothing further that I would do or could do.”

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A little more than five minutes before post time for the Ladies’ Classic, ESPN producer Amy Zimmerman called the stewards on a dedicated telephone line after Velazquez made his first comments. Zimmerman wanted to make sure the stewards’ room had the ESPN broadcast on a monitor (they did not) and were aware of the comments. The stewards – Veitch, Rick Leigh, and Butch Becraft − tuned into the broadcast and observed Life At Ten’s behavior on the racetrack. The KHRC investigation’s account of what then transpired behind closed doors in the stewards’ room reads like classic he-said, she-said.

Becraft said “he observed something physically wrong with LAT,” the report said. Leigh thought Life At Ten “looked choppy.” Becraft said he mentioned to the other two that Life At Ten should be looked at by a vet. Leigh recalls Becraft saying this, but remembers it being said just as the horses were loaded into the gate. Veitch doesn’t recall Becraft making the suggestion. Becraft claims Veitch responded to his suggestion by saying “if we do that, we might as well scratch the horse.” Veitch denies making that statement.

The stewards turned off the ESPN broadcast, preparing themselves for one of their essential duties, carefully watching the running of the race. But to the KHRC, Veitch already had failed to carry out his duty. One of the possible rule violations the KHRC attributed to Veitch came during this span of five minutes. Rule 810 KAR 1:012 Section 9(1) is termed “Serviceable for Racing.” It states, “A horse shall not be entered or raced that: (1) Is not in serviceable, sound racing condition. The stewards may at any time cause a horse on association grounds to be examined by a qualified person.”

To the KHRC, Veitch should actively have inserted himself into the situation. But Veitch continues to vigorously dispute that it was his responsibility to ask a vet to look at Life At Ten.

“I don’t right now feel it’s my job to bring any undue pressure on a state vet to take action,” Veitch said. “It is solely and completely the job of the jockey to report the condition of his mount to a racing official. They’re in a position to observe and report to us what they observe.”

The scratching of horses already saddled and warming up is essential for the protection of bettors, as well as the safety of horses and riders. The stewards alone can scratch a horse. When they do so just before a race, it is only on the advice of the track veterinarian. But scratching horses who have left the paddock and are preparing to race is a sticky area.

“You could call it politics, I guess, all the weighing and balancing,” said Dr. Joseph Lokanc, a state-employed racetrack vet in Chicago. 

It’s not common for a vet to initiate an ontrack examination for race fitness, and far rarer is a call from stewards requesting that a vet take that step. Typically, a rider will ask a vet to look at a horse not moving to his satisfaction during warm-up. Some places, a horse will be scratched if the rider asks for a vet check and decides he doesn’t want to ride. In other jurisdictions the vet has the option of deciding the animal is fit to race and calling for a replacement rider.

Many conflicting pressures arise when a horse’s race fitness becomes questionable a few minutes before post time. The vet knows a track wants as many starters as possible since larger field size equals higher betting handle. He also knows that if he allows a questionable horse to run and something goes amiss, it’s serious trouble. The decision to scratch also can incur the wrath of horsemen. Moreover, a rider can feel conflicted about asking a vet to look at his mount. To do so, essentially, is to question the horsemanship of the trainer who just had put a saddle on the animal, deeming it race-ready.

“We’ve got the younger riders that are very hungry for mounts,” Lokanc said. “They’re hesitant to say anything, and are afraid if the horse gets scratched they’ll lose the mount.”

It’s unlikely that one of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup protocol enhancements, the wearing of distinctly marked vests by veterinary personnel, will move the process forward. It’s not that Velazquez didn’t know to whom he should show Life At Ten, it’s that he might have seen little point in taking her to a vet.

How were they going to scratch her, Velazquez said when interviewed by KHRC investigators last December. “She’s not lame,” he said. “I mean, she’s not limping. What were they going to say, she’s too quiet to run?”

“I’ve ridden horses that warm up really bad and run really good,” Velazquez said.

Dr. Bryce Peckham, the chief state veterinarian at the track that day, told KHRC investigators, however, that Life At Ten would have been scratched had Velazquez merely communicated his concerns to the vets rather than to television broadcasters.

After returning to her stall following the race, Life At Ten was treated for tying up, a relatively common occurrence in racehorses and a condition akin to muscle cramps. She also had an elevated temperature and a high white blood cell count, signs that a developing infection might have affected performance, but there was no later diagnosis of illness. A prerace examination done race-day morning detected a potential problem with Life At Ten’s right foreleg, but whatever unevenness of gait was observed was attributed to rough ground where Life At Ten jogged. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, sensed in the paddock before the race that something might be amiss and later theorized Life At Ten could have reacted to the administration of the anti-bleeder medication Lasix. That was never confirmed. Racing under lights might have bothered Life At Ten that evening, assistant trainer Mike McCarthy said soon after the race had ended. A year later, no one has firm answers about what went wrong.  After the Ladies’ Classic Life At Ten raced five times without a victory, never approaching her previous form, and was subsequently retired.

One thing that clearly did not happen − and a potentially more concrete KHRC rule breach by Veitch – was that Life At Ten was not sent to the test barn on the Churchill backstretch to be drug-tested after her non-performance. The stewards have the authority to send any horse for postrace drug testing, and with so little information about what had happened to Life At Ten, that would have seemed a natural response.

It seems certain that any extremely dull performance in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup will send a horse to the postrace test barn. But one thing remaining unchanged from previous years is the prerace interview, though doing away with the practice was considered when protocols came under review.

“We have talked about the jockeys’ responsibilities and the ability of jockeys to communicate with the media after they leave the paddock and until they go into the starting gate,” Veitch said. “My personal feeling is once the jockey leaves the paddock they shouldn’t communicate with anyone except a racing official until the race is run.”

Mike McQuade, a vice president of event production at ESPN, plays a key role in shaping racing telecasts. McQuade said jockeys would never be coached, at least by ESPN, about responding to interview questions.

“We would never put limits on what can be asked and what will be asked,” McQuade wrote in an e-mail. “Common sense should always prevail. Almost always we stick to strategy of that particular race.”

“Insight and strategy and getting viewers closer to the action is what we are trying to get from the jockey interviews,” McQuade wrote.

Veitch said prerace interviews can compromise the betting public.

“In a case like Life At Ten last year, whatever comment Johnny Velazquez made to the commentators, the people watching TV heard it, but everyone else did not, and it was an unfair advantage,” he said.

When asked whether such interviews could compromise public wagering, Lisa Underwood, the executive director of the KHRC, would say only, “Yes, this is a concern.”

Insiders, too, could potentially use a prerace interview to influence gambling patterns. Many Life At Ten tickets were cancelled after the Velazquez comments. Had she won, accusations of another sort of malfeasance would have followed.

The jockey-interview dilemma suggests television, an entertainment-based medium, might not be the best way to add transparency to American racing. Such changes – and they are afoot – probably will emanate from racing’s bureaucracy. There may come a day when the contents of Breeders’ Cup prerace veterinary exams will immediately be made public. And the occurrences in the stewards’ room already are beginning to filter into public domain. New York and California stewards now publish reports of their deliberations on racing incidents. In New York, those reports are available immediately after a race, though there have been questions about the thoroughness of their explanations. 

Other countries, where racing’s central authority is far more concentrated and powerful, already conduct racing business in a far more streamlined and transparent manner. The Life At Ten situation would have unfolded much differently in Hong Kong.

“Before the next race would have been run, Pletcher and Velazquez would have been in separate stewards rooms [for questioning], and the horse would have been segregated and tested immediately,” said Clinton Pitts, who was chief stipendiary steward for the Hong Kong Jockey Club from 1997-2000.

Pitts, the father of trainer Helen Pitts-Blasi, went to Hong Kong after decades of work as a racing official at tracks on the East Coast. He was amazed by the level oversight stewards there could impose on proceedings.

“If a horse dropped two or three points in the mutuels right before post, we’d call up the starter and have him ask the rider what his instructions were, and he’d better ride to those instructions,” Pitts said. “If we had a questionable ride, we had security pick up the rider and take him right in to the interview room.”

Pitts was a steward at Pimlico for the 1980 Preakness Stakes, where victorious Codex carried out the much-loved Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk turning into the stretch. The stewards voted unanimously to leave Codex’s number up. But there came television again, heating up the pot. ABC color commentator Eddie Arcaro opined that had he been judging, Codex would have been disqualified. The Pimlico phone lines went ablaze. Bill Nack, writing about the incident in Sports Illustrated, recounted steward Edward Litzenberger fielding call after call, attempting to explain the judges’ decision.

If you watch the replay of bumping incident again and again, what actually happened can become less and less clear. Much of the time, what seemed at first like an easy call turns out to be colored in shades of gray. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, even the KHRC’s final report wouldn’t take a stand on whether Life At Ten was unfit to race.

“There are conflicting opinions on whether LAT was in distress prior to the race,” the report said. “Persons on the scene and watching television formed different opinions based on their locations and expertise. There was, however, consensus that immediately after the race, LAT seemed fine until sometime after she returned to the barn.”

Perhaps the challenge faced by stewards was best summarized by Pete Pedersen, who for decades was the dean of stewards on the West Coast.

“Much of your work is not covered by law or rules,” he wrote. “In those uncharted waters you will earn your salt.”

But there’s another Pedersen dictum to stewards: “When on the horns of a dilemma, settle in the public interest.”