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TrackNotes: A Collective Choke

You wish the mare could talk.

Life At Ten would have told us herself she didn't want to run, but her lethargy before last November's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic was the only language she knows and the people around her weren't listening.

They probably just wanted the whole thing to go away, but the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had to do something. After deciding that there was "probable cause" that jockey John Velazquez and Chief Steward John Veitch violated racing regulations, commissioners released their report and said they would investigate whether formal charges should be brought.

To recap, Velazquez told ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey twice in the pre-race warmups that Life At Ten, who ended up the second favorite in the wagering, did not feel herself, had little energy and didn't seem to want to run in the Ladies Classic, the nightcap on Breeders' Cup Friday and one of the most prestigious races for females in the world.

Race fans without the benefit of sound or captioning of the broadcast, wherever they may have been, would not have heard JV's revelations and fans at Churchill Downs most certainly did not know of LAT's troubles.

After the shock wore off, with four minutes before post, I was able to change my bets online. Lo and behold, Life At Ten didn't run a lick and Velazquez basically galloped her around the track.

An ESPN producer contacted the stewards to tell them what Velazquez told Bailey. While JV did not ask a veterinarian at the gate to check the mare, saying he thought it would have been useless because the vets would never scratch her, the common conception was that the vets had no idea Life At Ten may have been in distress.

But the report shows that the "rumors" were flying around the track amongst various on-track officials and that the vets were waiting for Velazquez to bring the horse to them. He didn't, so they didn't look at her. And the stewards never ordered the vets to look at the six-year-old.

Certainly, Velazquez does deserve blame for not consulting the vets. The gut feeling of a cinch Hall of Famer said something was wrong with the horse but Velazquez failed to act. The coterie of officials at America's biggest racing event pulled a collective choke job in not taking action, for the benefit of the horse. Whatever equine safety regulations were in place were not triggered, the tragedy of Barbaro and the death of a horse earlier in the day notwithstanding.

We are all lucky nothing happened to Life At Ten. Velazquez saved her life by not pushing her around the track. Certainly his thought process had to include the fact that Garrett Gomez had refused to ride a race a few weeks earlier after summoning a vet over concern with his mount. He was shot down and got off the horse and later said he lost some future mounts because of it.

But as usual, there are also twists to the LAT case.

* Breeders' Cup Friday was run on a day/night schedule to get the biggest races of the day into prime time for television, so the Ladies' Classic was run under Churchill's lights.

In a race earlier in the year at Hollywood Park, Life At Ten also ran a clunker under the lights. Trainer Todd Pletcher had to know that Life At Ten might not have liked running at night.

* It appears Pletcher is getting off the hook on this one. A man who is supposed to know how horses communicate said he knew LAT was not right in the paddock. It is not clear whether he told Velazquez to err on the side of caution if she didn't brighten up and then seek to get her scratched.

After the race, it was reported LAT was dehydrated and cramping and one veterinarian testified that it took days to get the horse back to normal. No testing was done on Life At Ten after the race to determine whether she had anything untoward in her system. Medical tests the next day revealed elevated white blood cell counts, elevated enzymes and a fever, according to the report. The horse was ill.

In a bizarre shot across the commission's bow, Pletcher pulled a Blagojevich and Bart Simpson all at once by issuing a strong statement absolving himself of responsibility, seeking to influence public opinion and shouting "I didn't do it" for all to hear. Pletcher's rant came just hours before the commission released its report.

Pletcher rightly blasted the commission for conducting its hearing behind closed doors. The KHRC fulfilled its promise to discuss the report in public by merely throwing the report on the table and running out the door.

* In a too-typical Kremlinesque manner, the commission strongly recommended that jockeys not be allowed to talk to the media before a race. ESPN analysts Randy Moss, Joe Tessitore, Jeanine Edwards in the paddock and especially Bailey, did a tremendous job of getting Velazquez on the air as Bailey obviously saw something amiss and did not skirt the issue.

Although ESPN did report that vets were going to look at the horse at the gate, that didn't happen.

With the Ladies' Classic being the last race of the day, ESPN really didn't have a lot of time to analyze the scandal. But their solid reporting day began with great coverage of the Castellano-Borel fistfight and ended by breaking a big story.

It's hard to imagine ESPN will be willing to give up being able to talk to the jockeys on the track before the races.

* While the report said that there was no evidence of "nefarious or fraudulent" activity related to the wagering on the race, I disagree that there were no wagering "irregularities."

I would call the fact that I was able to get my money off the horse while thousands of others could not irregular. When it came to Life At Ten and the money wagered on her, it was not a fair race.

* The Daily Racing Form once again disappointed in the form of editor Steve Crist's bland and disjointed combination of praise and derision for the commission and its report.

"(There was) nothing to suggest anyone knew or suspected anything was amiss with the filly in the days or hours leading up to the race," Crist wrote in the "bible" of horse racing.

Well, he's technically right. And that would seem to shoot down any conspiracy theories. But there were a lot of people who knew there was a problem in the minutes leading up to the race, and the system's failure to act put every horse and jockey in the race at risk.

Crist and The Form owe it to their readers and the industry to point out that while the report said just about everybody blew it, before and after the race, it also took a fairly benign stance on the case and also said the horse was good to go and, basically, it will never happen again. The Form pretty much took the same blase approach.

The commission's report is all well and good and does say some constructive things, but the point is that in the heat of one of the biggest days of racing in the world, a large contingent of supposedly top horse racing officials and personnel in the nation failed in a massive way to ensure the integrity and safety of a big race and the sport in general.

With all those people, not one of them could do the right thing?


Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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