Life At Ten: Blame Veitch

Though it seemed to take forever, a report issued Thursday by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission into the Life at Ten debacle was not only thorough, but left little doubt who was to blame -- steward John Veitch.

Though the KHRC concluded that Veitch and jockey John Velazquez may have been in violation of a numbers of rules, violations that could lead to some sort of penalties, it is really Veitch that comes out looking like the bad guy, or at least like some sort of stumblebum.

It is the commission's report that best sums up what Veitch did wrong. Though not referring specifically to him, the report says "in some instances there was not a specific rule violation, but rather a failure of common sense to prevail." Exactly.

Life At Ten's condition to race in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Distaff started to become an issue when Velazquez told ESPN commentator and retired jockey Jerry Bailey that his mount was not warming up properly. "She's not warming up the way she normally does," he said.

It was then that ESPN producer Amy Zimmerman contacted the stewards and told them of Velazquez's comments. At the time, there were still more than five minutes to go before the race would begin, plenty of time for the stewards to react.

There are three stewards, in this case Veitch, Butch Brecraft and Rick Leigh. But it is Veitch, as the Chief State Steward representing the State of Kentucky, who is in charge. The buck stops with him. The moment he heard from Zimmerman, he should have been vigilant and done everything within his power to make sure than a horse that was in no condition to race never entered the starting gate. Instead, he did nothing.

If Life At Ten were to be scratched, it would have had to be done by the veterinarian representing the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Astonishingly, Veitch never bothered to call them. With them having no idea that something was amiss with Life At Ten, the on-track vets had no reason to take an extra look at the horse.

Veitch wasn't the only one who messed this up. All sorts of things could have happened and should have happened to prevent this horse from racing and the betting public from getting ripped off. And certainly this wasn't Velazquez's finest hour. He knew there was something wrong with Life At Ten, yet he, also, never alerted the track vets about the apparent problem. The commission concludes that she would have been scratched had Velazquez alerted the KHC vets about his concerns.

Still, his job is to ride a horse. Veitch's is to make sure a horse that is in less than ideal shape does not race, which has to be done in order to protect the betting public. How can a producer from ESPN understand better than a steward that there was a serious problem here that needed to be addressed?

From the report, we now know that Life At Ten was a sick horse. Dr. Ken Reed, a private vet employed by trainer Todd Pletcher, told the commission that, after the race, Life At Ten was "obviously in great distress and obviously dried out."

He added: "I mean, she was obviously in muscle cramps … she was probably sick going into the race and we didn't realize it, and that's what I told Todd."

The commission wants to weigh whether or not jockeys should be allowed to talk to television reporters so close to the race. That the broadcast crew did its job and interviewed Velazquez was among the few things that went right.

Yet, she was allowed to race, and not just in a $10,000 claimer on a Thursday. The Breeders' Cup is one of the biggest events in racing and attracts tens of millions of dollars in wagering. It would be nice to know just how much was bet on Life At Ten, something not included in the report. She never should have been allowed to run.

The stewards still had a chance to make the best of a bad situation had they done the right thing after the race, but again, Veitch and his team failed to do the right thing. Though it is now apparent that Life At Ten was not drugged, no one knew that at the time. Anytime a horse turns in that sort of effort, basically never running a step, the stewards must see to it that they are tested after the race, which is within their right. With the same lack of care and understanding of the gravity of the decision that covered every decision they made, they did nothing, sending Life At Ten on her way.

What now? That's up to the commission.

The report was, by and large, well done, but it also includes some recommendations that are way off the mark. The commission wants to weigh whether or not jockeys should be allowed to talk to television reporters so close to the race. That the broadcast crew did its job and interviewed Velazquez was among the few things that went right. Had Veitch not totally dropped the ball, that same pre-race jockey interview would have saved the day. You can put no blame on the messenger here.

It's likely that Velazquez and Veitch will receive some form of fine or suspension as the result of what was, at the very least, the use of poor judgment. That's the right call. No one else, Pletcher included, did anything wrong here.

It is Veitch who is the primary culprit.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.