06/28/2011 4:13PM

Veitch hearing witnesses give conflicting testimony

Alysse Jacobs
Life At Ten dropped far back after the start of last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Witnesses called to testify Tuesday during the first day of a hearing into whether Kentucky State Steward John Veitch violated multiple rules of racing described a chaotic and sometimes conflicting series of events leading up to the Life At Ten incident at the Breeders’ Cup last Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs.

The testimony of the witnesses did little to determine one way or another whether Veitch and his two fellow stewards at Churchill that day had a responsibility to order an examination of Life At Ten after Veitch was informed by a television producer that jockey John Velazquez had told commentators on an ESPN broadcast that the filly was “not warming up the way she normally does” just minutes before post time. Critics of the filly’s performance – she dropped far back at the start and then lost contact with the field, finishing last as the 7-2 favorite – have contended that the stewards should have ordered the filly to be scratched.

Veitch was the last of six witnesses called to testify on Tuesday during a seven-hour hearing that included a handful of testy exchanges and several technical glitches marring testimony provided by witnesses over telephone. During his one hour under questioning, Veitch emphasized that stewards had not been provided with any direct information regarding the horse’s condition in the chaotic minutes leading up to the race, and that it was not the stewards’ responsibility or practice to order an examination of any horse.

“We are not trained [to make a diagnosis of a horse] because it is not our responsibility,” Veitch said. “It is the responsibility of the state veterinarians.”

Attorneys for the racing commission were still questioning Veitch late Tuesday afternoon when the hearing officer, Robert Layton, ordered a recess until Wednesday morning. The racing commission has blocked out three days for the hearing.

The hearing was called after the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved motions in March stating that it had probable cause to charge both Velazquez and Veitch with multiple violations of Kentucky’s racing rules after the release of a report examining the incident. Velazquez accepted a deal shortly after the finding in which he did not admit to breaking any rules but paid a $10,000 fine.

Veitch, a former trainer who was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2007, is an employee of the racing commission, but was appointed in 2005 to his position by Kentucky’s former governor, Ernie Fletcher, a Republican. Kentucky’s current governor, Steve Beshear, a Democrat, dissolved the commission’s predecessor, the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, shortly after taking office in 2008, though most of the members were retained under the reformulated commission.

The first witness called to testify on Tuesday was Amy Zimmerman, a producer for HRTV who was working on the ESPN broadcast that day. Zimmerman testified that she had called a dedicated phone line to the stewards just after Velazquez made his comments on the broadcast and talked directly to Veitch, informing him, according to her testimony, that “John said the horse ain’t right.”

Zimmerman also testified that Veitch had responded that he was watching the broadcast, but another steward in the stand that day, Brooks “Butch” Becraft, said that the broadcast was not on in the stewards’ stand at the time Zimmerman made the call.

At the close of the hearing on Tuesday, attorneys for the commission had not asked Veitch to testify about whether the ESPN broadcast was on one of the five television monitors in the steward’s stand, located six floors above the finish line at Churchill Downs. Becraft testified that Veitch asked for the broadcast to be displayed after talking with Zimmerman.

Becraft also provided an account of a discussion that the stewards conducted in the minutes leading up to the race that conflicted somewhat with other testimony. Following the call, Becraft said that he told Veitch that he thought the veterinarians should be asked to examine the horse. According to Becraft, Veitch then responded, “If we do that, we might as well scratch the horse.”

Becraft then said that any discussion about the matter was dropped. Rick Leigh, the other steward in the stand that night, said that the discussion was dropped because, at that time, “The horses were going into the gate.”

Under questioning, Veitch explained that his comment about scratching the horse was meant to relay his opinion that asking a vet to examine a horse at post time based on comments made by the jockey on television would put the veterinarian in a “no-win situation,” because the veterinarian would be compelled to scratch the horse regardless of the horse’s condition. However, Veitch acknowledged that he did not use those exact words.

Speaking by telephone, Velazquez testified that he had no concerns about Life At Ten’s soundness that day, and that if he did, he would have immediately told veterinarians in place near the starting gate to examine the filly, as he has on several other occasions in his 21-year riding career.

“Trust me, I’ve ridden 25,000 horses, and I know when one is not all right,” Velazquez said. He said his concerns about Life At Ten that day were limited to the filly’s alertness, and not any physical ailment.

During the first day, attorneys hired by the commission to argue its case focused primarily on inconsistencies between statements made by witnesses at the time of the race and in subsequent testimony, in an attempt to introduce doubt about whether the witnesses were changing their stories. At one point, one of the attorneys, Luke Morgan, was warned by the hearing officer to “move on” after questioning Velazquez repeatedly about the difference between his recollection of his comments that day and a transcript of the broadcast.

One area of criticism of the incident has focused on the fact that Life At Ten was not sent to the test barn after the race to check for evidence of doping. But all three stewards testified that it is against policy to send a horse to the test barn after a poor performance that might be caused by “distress,” saying that those horses are always allowed to be sent back to their barns immediately so that they can be examined and treated, if necessary. Outside veterinarians and medications are not allowed in the test barn.

“We normally do not test a horse that something is wrong with,” Becraft said. “You want that horse to go back to the barn to be looked at by the trainer and veterinarian.”

Leading the witness list for Wednesday is Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Under questioning from Veitch’s lawyers, Zimmerman acknowledged that Scollay had demanded on the morning after the Ladies’ Classic to see a tape of the race and to talk to ESPN’s producers. During the discussions, Zimmerman said, Scollay told the producers that “she didn’t notice any head-bobbing lameness” for Life At Ten during the post parade, and that “she wasn’t going to scratch a horse for a behavioral problem.”

Following the conclusion of the hearing, Layton is expected to issue a recommendation to the full commission after reviewing the evidence and testimony. The recommendation, which is not expected for several months following the hearing, will then be voted on by the full commission, which can choose to accept Layton’s conclusion or draw their own.

Perhaps the most compelling moment of the hearing occurred at the end of Velazquez’s appearance, when Morgan sought to introduce a precedent for a horse being ordered to be scratched at the gate by citing an incident involving Quality Road in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in California. Velazquez was Quality Road’s mount that day, but the horse was scratched after acting up in the starting gate and then refusing to re-enter. The race was delayed and all bets on the horse were voided.

“So a horse was scratched at the gate by the stewards in a Breeders’ Cup race?” Morgan asked forcefully.

“I believe that was the veterinarian” who ordered the horse scratched, Velazquez responded.

“Oh, the veterinarian,” Morgan responded. “Okay.”

Morgan then excused the witness.