03/11/2011 3:30PM

Life At Ten report gives pause


The report of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on the Life At Ten incident on Breeders’ Cup Friday at Churchill Downs last Nov. 5, finally released this past Thursday, was at once both reassuring and discouraging.

The positive news was the commission’s finding that there was absolutely no “evidence of intentional wrongdoing or nefarious or fraudulent activity.” There were no wagering irregularities, and nothing to suggest anyone knew or suspected anything was amiss with the filly in the days or hours leading up to the race.

On the other hand, nothing in the report suggests that anything will necessarily be done differently if a similar scenario were to unfold at this year’s Breeders’ Cup or anywhere else in American racing.

The racing commission’s full report (available at www.knrc.ky.gov) is a fascinating forensic document investigating the events surrounding Life At Ten’s behavior before, and performance during, the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. The short version is that Life At Ten was unusually quiet in the paddock and then did not warm up well for jockey John Velazquez on the track. Velazquez told ESPN interviewers from horseback in the minutes before the race that the filly was not herself.

Neither Velazquez nor trainer Todd Pletcher, observing the same behavior in the paddock and then from the stands, contacted the stewards, and Velazquez said nothing to the attending veterinarians at the starting gate. An ESPN producer did call the stewards to relay the comments, but it is unclear how much of the broadcast comments they heard or absorbed with four minutes to post time. The three stewards, led by Chief State Steward John Veitch, took no action.

The commission concluded that there was “probable cause” to schedule hearings into whether Velazquez and/or Veitch’s actions or lack thereof were in violation of Kentucky racing statutes about the welfare and integrity of the sport. Given the vagueness of those statutes, and the clear finding that these were at worst errors of judgment in a highly pressurized and unusual situation, it seems unlikely that anything more than mild and symbolic sanctions will be levied against them.

Veitch’s position was that it was up to Velazquez, not the stewards, to inform a veterinarian of any concerns about how a horse warms up. Velazquez did not think the filly’s condition was serious enough to warrant that. In retrospect, Life At Ten’s dismal performance suggests these were not the correct calls, but they were not unreasonable or dishonest ones at the time.

Veitch, widely respected for his personal integrity and almost military adherence to the rules of racing, thought he was following established protocol. Velazquez was in a tough spot but made a decision based on his experience. It is entirely conceivable that either of them, or any other steward or jockey, would make the identical choices the next time something like this happens.

The only way to change that is for industry regulators nationwide to agree upon very specific rules and guidelines for that next time. As the Kentucky commission report said, almost everyone involved thought that responding to the situation was someone else’s job and responsibility. Everyone needs to know exactly what he is supposed to do when a horse is warming up poorly and when this observation is broadcast to hundreds of thousands of viewers and bettors in the minutes before a race. While there will always be judgment calls subject to second-guessing, there should be no confusion about how to proceed – and part of that procedure should encourage erring on the side of caution rather than expedience.

The alternative is intolerable. Bettors understandably felt their wagers on Life At Ten were stolen from them, and the casual fans who tuned in for Breeders’ Cup races had to be taken aback by hearing a horse might not be fit to race and then watching her perform so poorly.

The racing commission’s report takes an unfortunate turn in its suggestion that muzzling the participants is a solution to the problem. It is any jockey or trainer’s right to decline a media interview in the minutes leading up to a race, but forbidding such contact would send a completely wrong message – that everything would have been fine if Velazquez had kept his mouth shut and just shrugged off a mysterious non-effort after the race.

The problem is that something was amiss with Life at Ten before the race and nothing was done, not that this became public knowledge.