Updated on 06/30/2011 5:12PM

Veitch maintains Life At Ten decision holds up

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Alysse Jacobs
Life At Ten, with John Velazquez riding, trails the field in the BC Ladies' Classic.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - John Veitch, Kentucky's chief state steward, stuck to his guns Thursday on the final day of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's hearing into his handling of Life At Ten in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Repeatedly pressed by commission attorney Luke Morgan in a hearing conducted by Bob Layton, Veitch stood by his decision not to contact ontrack veterinarians in the minutes before the race on Nov. 5, 2010, after Amy Zimmerman, a producer for the ESPN television broadcast of the event, said she alerted Veitch that Life at Ten's jockey, John Velazquez, had said on the air that the filly wasn't warming up normally.

Life At Ten, second choice in the wagering, was eased by Velazquez shortly after breaking from the gate, according to the stewards' report of the race, was distanced by the field, and crossed the finish line last. The stewards did not order her to the test barn for postrace blood or urine tests.

Throughout the three-day hearing, Veitch's attorney, Tom Miller, focused on the extraordinary nature of the situation, in which a television producer relayed information from a jockey being interviewed while warming up a horse. He argued that Velazquez's on-air comment that Life At Ten was not warming up normally was too ambiguous to have actionable meaning. And he sought to portray Veitch as a scapegoat.

Miller asked Veitch on Thursday about previous troubles he has had with the commission's executive director, Lisa Underwood. Veitch testified that Underwood had "interfered" in previous affairs he believed were the stewards' purview, including pressuring him to apply a harsher penalty in a case when the stewards believed it wasn't warranted.

Asked why he believed that only he - and not fellow stewards Brooks Becraft and Rick Leigh - was the only one charged with violating racing rules, Veitch said he felt his relatively high profile was a factor. "I'm a better scapegoat," he said.

Morgan, the commission attorney whose style was confrontational at times, argued that Veitch failed to protect both Life At Ten and the wagering public by failing to relay Zimmerman's information to a veterinarian.

"How is it okay for you to remain silent when you knew what the jockey was saying?" Morgan asked Veitch.

"Because I didn't have enough information to act upon," Veitch said. Veitch testified that, upon receiving Zimmerman's call, he and steward Leigh stepped onto the stewards' balcony and watched Life At Ten through binoculars for between one and two minutes. They did not, he said, see anything that concerned them and opted to see whether Velazquez would ask the vets at the gate to exam the filly.

"If he had concerns, he should have taken them to a state veterinarian," Veitch said.

"As you have told these investigators time and again, you made a mistake in relying on Johnny Velazquez," Morgan said.

"It is apparently so, yes," Veitch answered.

Veitch testified he has never similarly contacted a veterinarian about a horse before a race, a practice backed up by witness and longtime steward Clinton Pitts, Jr. Asked by Miller whether he had ever requested a vet to look at a horse on track before a race, Pitts said, "Absolutely not. It puts the vet in a no-win situation. The vet would have to scratch the horse."

Pitts also testified that Velazquez's on-air comments did not, to him, indicate that the filly was unfit to race.

"Riders say that to cover themselves," Pitts said. "If the horse runs well, it's forgotten, and if he doesn't, he's already started working on his excuse."

Veitch has contended that he saw no indication when he looked at Life At Ten that she needed to be scratched and that the responsibility for alerting the track veterinarians rested with Velazquez if he felt there was a problem. "What I did then was what I thought was right and was right," Veitch said.

Regarding the decision not to request drug tests for Life At Ten, Veitch said that, at the time, he was concerned the filly could have been in distress and felt it was in her best interest to return to her own barn for observation and any necessary veterinary treatment. In Kentucky, the top four finishers in a graded stakes race are automatically tested, creating a potentially unsafe traffic jam in the testing barn - another reason Veitch said he did not order a test.

Testimony opened Thursday morning with California steward Scott Chaney, called by Morgan. Chaney testified that if he received credible information that a horse could be unsound or unfit to race, he would pass that on to veterinarians on duty "and allow them to make the determination whether the horse is fit to run." Chaney called the possibility that a steward would influence a vet a "slight concern" but added that "the alternative is far worse."

Chaney counted Zimmerman as a credible source for such information because, he testified, Zimmerman is based at Santa Anita and contacts California stewards about once a month with potential issues she spots in horses before races.

Among witnesses called by Miller was Dr. Foster Northrup, a Kentucky track veterinarian and commission member, who said that prerace on-air speculation that Life At Ten might be tying up - suffering from intestinal cramps - was "absolutely absurd." Northrup was on duty on the Churchill backside for the Breeders' Cup Day and accompanied Life At Ten off the track and to trainer Todd Pletcher's barn. Northrup testified that, from his viewing of prerace video, Life at Ten did not appear to be tying up and that she appeared normal after pulling up.

Asked for his most likely scenario for what had happened to her, Northrup said he believed she could have been developing an illness such as a viral or respiratory infection or enteritis.

The three days of testimony are expected to generate at least 700 pages of transcript. Layton, the hearing officer, said he likely will not make a recommendation until autumn. The commission is expected to rule on Layton's recommendation by early next year. The commission found this past March probable cause that both Veitch and Velazquez had violated rules of racing. Velazquez settled with the commission by agreeing to pay a $10,000 fine while not admitting any wrongdoing.