Saturday, November 6, 2010

Life At Ten fiasco: Blame for all, save the rider

Bettors and horse-welfare advocates alike are in a furor, and have a right to be, over the fact that Life At Ten broke from the gate -- if you can call it that -- in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, despite showing obvious signs to both her trainer and rider that she just wasn't right.

It was downright wrong that the unwell horse was loaded into the gate and asked to, in any way, "run" with the field. It's also wrong that the stewards didn't immediately refund all wagers placed on Life At Ten -- the second choice in the wagering at 7/2 -- when it was clear from the moment the gate opened (actually, well before it closed behind her) that the horse never stood a chance and almost certainly shouldn't run.

So call down wrath from the sky upon the stewards. Vent your fury on the track veterinarians, who observed Life At Ten after both trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez suggested she wasn't well, but authorized her to run anyway. Be angry that Pletcher didn't make the disappointing decision to scratch his own horse when she didn't seem right, though it could be argued he chose to trust the judgment of the vets.

But whether you're livid that the horse's safety was risked, furious that you lost money wrongfully on betting a horse that never even tried to race, or both, I say spare John Velazquez. He did all he could do in untenable circumstances.

According to Blood-Horse reports, Pletcher said Life At Ten seemed well when she walked over to the paddock. But he noticed problems during the saddling, describing the mare as acting as though she'd been sedated. Pletcher said he told Velazquez to be sure he warmed-up the mare well. But when she didn't respond to the rider's efforts, Pletcher said Velazquez asked that vets check Life At Ten before loading the horse into the gate for the start.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine practitioners, said in a statement that a team of three vets at the starting gate "did not observe any physical problems." In fact, Bramlage said the vets didn't find anything out of the ordinary upon examining Life At Ten after the race, either.

(Note: The Daily Racing Form reports that Velazquez said nothing to the vets pre-race, according to a quote by Bramlage. Somebody should get to the bottom of that. Complaining to the vets; did Johnny V, or didn't he?)

At any rate, something wasn't right. John Velazquez knew it; even said so before a television audience. And when the veterinarians didn't scratch the horse (and Pletcher didn't either), in my mind Velazquez was left to make one of three terrible choices.

1. Get off the horse. Refuse to ride her. Risk them calling in a replacement jockey who will ride Life At Ten as though nothing is amiss, until such time as she goes completely wrong, perhaps fatally.

2. Ride the mare himself as though nothing is amiss, even though he knows that there is. Be the jockey that maybe kills her. And maybe gets himself killed in the process.

3. Stay on the horse that has become one of his most prized regular mounts, so that nobody else has control of his stricken charge's fate. When the gate opens, keep Life At Ten under wraps for her own good.

In an impossible situation, where he (and possibly the horse) will be damned regardless of his choice, John Velazquez did the closest thing there was to "the right thing."

Yes, it screwed bettors. But were they (or "you" where applicable) any more screwed by Velazquez's not persevering at all with Life At Ten than if she had broken down on the clubhouse turn? Or had a heart attack on the backstretch?

It's the vets' error for not listening to a trainer and a rider who both (at least according to some reports) were openly concerned that the horse they know, train and ride wasn't herself today. Pletcher could be blamed for sending her out to the post-parade at all considering how she was behaving in the paddock. And it's the house's inexcusable decision to keep your money when the horse you bet was as close a thing as you'll find in this game to a non-starter without actually "not starting."

The Life At Ten incident of BC2010 was embarrassing. Terrible.

But John Velazquez quite possibly saved us from far worse.


  1. So, from the cheap seats at the OTB, it looked a little different. We didn't get the great TV views y'all did. All we saw was a horse break disinterestedly from the gate, and lope along disinterestedly in the back of the field before fading from the camera's eye. The vet is quoted as having inspected her back in her box, and all was fine.

    So JR clearly didn't do anything to hurt the horse once it was clear she wasn't going to run, and the horse wasn't hurt after the race back in her stall.

    So if there's something wrong with her, it's something only imaging will find, which you can't expect the trackside vet to be responsible for. And there may be nothing wrong with her physically -- she just may not have been interested in competing last night.

    I think this story might be overblown. But let's give it time.

    Finally, as a bettor who had significant money in exotic wagers with Life at Ten on my tickets, I don't feel screwed, let's just say that.

    David H.

  2. Glenn, you are right on the money with this one. Velazquez did the only thing he could do... great call on his part.
    Just a few weeks ago there was a "gate scratching" controversy when Garrett Gomez requested his mount to be scratched when things just weren't right. And the result was that trainer Michael Maker subsequently removed Gomez from the trainer's mounts for the next couple days. Gomez states in his blog on ESPN:

    "But if the one good thing to come out of the entire situation was a heightened awareness of the need for better communication between vets and the riders at the gate, then the slight upheaval was for the best."

    "And here's one more thought. When I go out there to get on these horses, they run their eyeballs out for me. They give me every last drop that they've got. I do this on a daily basis, and if any horse is going to go out there and run and put his life on the line and I get a feeling that he's not right, I'm not going to knowingly ask him to do so. That's the bottom line."

    That was at Keeneland so it looks like Churchill has a similar breakdown in communication. And since both tracks are in the state of Kentucky then I would have to think the government agency in charge of on-track veterinarians is the common factor in this matter.

    I certainly hope that the discussion on this matter is more than just two notes on a blog somewhere out in cyberspace.

    Great piece, as usual.

  3. Thanks for the comments and compliment.

    David, I was actually watching the Breeders' Cup Webcast, which was hosted by TVG from a different location (I guess) than the ESPN broadcast, and which had no contact with the jockeys on-track. It was a really interesting thing for me, because folks on Twitter were tweeting about what John Velazquez, Jerry Bailey and others were saying on the ESPN broadcast (that I couldn't see or, more important, hear). And one person who knows horses very well, commented via Twitter (while watching on a 60-inch TV somewhere), that Life At Ten "needed to be scratched" due to obvious stiffness, "poor thing."

    And then they loaded her.

    I haven't checked yet to see if the discrepancies between Blood-Horse coverage (Velazquez asked vets to check her) and DRF coverage (Velazquez didn't say a word to vets pre-race) have been reconciled. I think that's important information, even though it seems the horse is OK. Pletcher says Johnny V talked to the vets, Larry Bramlage says he didn't.

  4. I agree 100% with you, they should never has taken the risk with her, especially John Velasquez, if they didn't think she was right. It made me and everyone in the room watching the race with me nervous. They avoided what could have been a disastrous incident (and on national television no less) by sheer dumb luck.
    It was great to see that she was fine after the race and will remain in training instead of going to sale now.

  5. I could not agree with you more. That Life At Ten was allowed to run and now no one seems particularly interested in reconciling the competing versions of what happened is yet another of the long list of travesties the industry heaps on its fans. I understand Bramlage was in no mood to say much after the races ended and ran out like he was late for a very important meeting.

  6. But Johnny V. could have gotten off the mount without punishment from Pletcher. Pletcher uses him all the time. Having said that, a gate vet inspection still could have cleared her.


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