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Updated on 06/29/2011 7:28PM
Veitch defends himself on stand at Life At Ten hearing
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Attorneys for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission continued on Wednesday to attempt to build a case that Kentucky Chief State Steward John Veitch had a responsibility to alert veterinarians about comments jockey John Velazquez made on television about the condition of his horse, Life At Ten, before last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Churchill Downs.
Veitch, 66, faced a second day of questioning and spent three hours under oath. A third day was scheduled for Thursday. The hearing was called after the racing commission determined last March that it had probable cause to charge Veitch with multiple violations of the state's racing rules following a two-month investigation into the incident. Life At Ten, second wagering choice, was eased after jockey Velazquez told television commentators five minutes before post that the filly was "not warming up like she normally does." The commission also found probable cause to charge Velazquez, but the jockey agreed to pay a $10,000 fine while not admitting that he broke any rules.
Through the first two days of the hearing, the commission's attorneys repeatedly attacked Veitch's decision to refrain from contacting the veterinarians and to allow the horse to be sent back to her barn following the race without collecting samples for drug testing. Veitch's attorney, Tom Miller, sought to place the onus for any evaluation of a horse's fitness on trackside veterinarians and the individuals, including jockeys, who are closest to the horses.
A handful of witnesses, including Veitch, his two associate stewards, and the commission's equine medical director, Dr. Mary Scollay, have called the incident "unprecedented," citing the decision by ESPN to interview jockeys during the post parade. Stewards typically take a dim view of jockeys offering comments before a race because of the ability of riders, deliberately or not, to influence betting odds or the running of a race.
In this case, the poor performance of Life At Ten - she was quickly distanced by the rest of the field, eased, and was last across the line - cost bettors several million dollars in losing wagers, and many have complained that the filly should have been scratched because of Velazquez's comments.
The case is complicated by the fact that Velazquez did not communicate his concerns to anyone but ESPN television commentators, who then erroneously stated on the broadcast 90 seconds later that the stewards had asked veterinarians to examine the filly. In testimony Wednesday, it became apparent that those comments were passed on to other veterinarians not directly responsible for determining a horse's fitness to race. None of the five state veterinarians on duty - who had the power to notify stewards about a horse's suspect condition - was told that Velazquez had made the comments, nor did any veterinarian notice anything outwardly wrong with the filly.
For example, Dr. Bryce Peckham, the chief track veterinarian for the commission, said that he received a radio message from Dr. Larry Bramlage, the head of the American Association of Equine Practitioner's On Call program, asking whether "there was any trouble down on the track at all" approximately four minutes before the race. Peckham said that he did not understand why Bramlage had asked the question but that he surveyed the veterinarians along the post-position route, and none reported any problems with any horse. Peckham said he began to focus on the horses and jockeys but could not find any obvious physical problems with any of the horses.
In addition, Dr. Jill Bailey, a California association veterinarian who was hired by Breeders' Cup to be part of the event's veterinary team, testified by telephone that she received a text message from an unidentified friend in California who was watching the broadcast that communicated Velazquez's comments. Bailey said she conducted a visual examination of Life At Ten as the filly went by her position at the quarter pole and did not notice any problems but did not relay the content of the text message to any of the track's veterinarians.
Meanwhile, six floors up in the steward's box, Veitch said that he was relying on Velazquez to relay his concerns to track veterinarians if the horse was having any physical problems. Veitch testified that it is the jockey's duty to inform veterinarians of any problems and that it was the track veterinarian's responsibility to determine whether a horse was not fit to race. He said that a call from the stewards would unduly influence a veterinarian's evaluation.
"I cannot and should not ever influence a veterinarian to make a medical decision," Veitch said.
The phrase Velazquez used on the television broadcast - "not warming up the way she normally does" - is not typically interpreted to mean that a horse is not fit to race, according to the testimony of Peckham and Scollay. Peckham, the commission's track veterinarian, testified that the phrase "by itself does not throw up any red flags," and Scollay, the panel's equine medical director, testified that she does not consider behavioral problems to be a reason to scratch a horse, citing the case of Unrivaled Belle, the winner of the 2010 Ladies Classic.
Scollay said she was standing in the paddock on the night of the Ladies' Classic with Unrivalled Belle's trainer, Bill Mott, before the horse was led into the ring to be saddled. Because Unrivaled Belle has a reputation for acting up in the paddock, Scollay asked Mott if she should allow the filly more space to be saddled. Mott declined, and although the filly arrived with enough handlers for Scollay to say that she looked like a "Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon," the horse did not act up.
"She didn't seem like herself either, and in one case it worked out, and in one case it didn't," Scollay testified.
Still, under questioning from Luke Morgan, the commission's attorney, both Scollay and Peckham said that if an official at the track knew about specific comments from a jockey about a horse "not warming up the way she usually does," that official should have relayed the information to veterinarians so that they could at least call the rider over and conduct a cursory examination. Veitch was not specifically named in the question.
Veitch was confronted multiple times by Morgan about inconsistencies between statements he made to investigators who helped prepare the March report and his statements since the report was issued. For example, in the report, Veitch was quoted as saying that another steward, Brooks "Butch" Becraft, did not recommend that veterinarians be asked to examine Life At Ten before the filly entered the starting gate, but on Tuesday, Veitch had said that on "further reflection" he had remembered a brief conversation with Becraft in which Becraft raised the issue before the race. Veitch said he then remembered that he had argued against calling down to veterinarians and that the matter was dropped.
Veitch contradicted testimony from Amy Zimmerman, a television producer working on the broadcast, who said on Tuesday that she had told Veitch during a telephone call to the stewards' stand that "John said the horse ain't right." Veitch said that Zimmerman told the stewards only that they should tune their television to the broadcast on ESPN, at which point the stewards first heard Velazquez make his comments, approximately five minutes before post.
Veitch was uncomfortable during most of the testimony on Wednesday, and his attorney, Tom Miller, frequently advised Veitch to answer the questions posed to him by Morgan, who conducted his questioning with the stifled outrage of a prosecuting attorney in a jury trial. At the end of the questioning, Miller declined to cross-examine Veitch, saying he would conduct his own questioning of Veitch when the hearing resumed on Thursday.
But before Morgan was done, Veitch - a former trainer who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 - stuck to his guns. In closing, Morgan asked him simply if he believed that he should have called the vets, and Veitch answered, "No." Morgan then asked him if he should have sent Life At Ten to the test barn, and Veitch repeated, "No."
"You would act the same way?" Morgan said.
"Yes," Veitch replied.