JC / Railbird

Life At Ten

Season of Malaise

John Pricci feels nothing at the release of the Life at Ten report:

But I’m afraid the industry has won, it’s beaten me down, stolen from me the energy needed to become angry. Taking it out of the realm of feelings, it’s a sad resignation I’m experiencing. Always, resignation.

In the short eight years I’ve paid serious attention to racing, I can’t think of a time where the industry felt so adrift, or so many fans so numb.

3/20/11 Addendum: Here’s your antidote to ennui.

A Communications Breakdown

How many downloads have there been from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission website of the Life at Ten report released on Thursday? The number must be in the hundreds, at least. The findings, the result of more than four months of investigation into what happened before the start of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and Life at Ten’s poor performance make for fascinating reading, with day-by-day accounting of who was interviewed and what they said. The conclusions also confirm what was obvious in the days immediately following — there was a communications failure:

Had Dr. Bramlage given the jockey’s name or horse number to Dr. Peckham this incident could have been resolved before the running of the race. If Dr. Bailey had relayed the information she received in a text message to the KHRC veterinary staff, this incident could have been resolved before the running of the race. If the stewards had notified the veterinary staff after Zimmerman contacting them this incident could have been resolved before the running of the race. Pletcher, his staff, and Velazquez all noticed LAT was unusually quiet during the day and in the paddock. Velazquez also noticed LAT was not warming up like she normally did. While in the best position to feel a potential problem and have the horse examined, Velazquez obviously did not present LAT to the KHRC veterinary staff for examination. Had Pletcher or Velazquez communicated any concerns to any veterinarian this situation could have been resolved.

Abetted by the assumption of almost all involved that responsibility lay elsewhere, the situation was allowed to turn into an incident that made bettors feel like fools (thank goodness that was it, and Life at Ten recovered well). If the above reads like everyone shared in the fault, Bill Finley has no problem naming the person ultimately to blame for the fiasco:

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.

The KHRC recommended that chief steward John Veitch, along with jockey John Velazquez, face sanctions for their parts in the incident. Velazquez’s lawyer Maggi Moss has said that the rider is being made a scapegoat.

Whether anything useful will come from the report remains to be seen. Among the suggestions made by the KHRC to prevent another such failure are that the stewards’ roles should be clarified and a protocol for decision-making determined — a need painfully obvious on reading accounts of the conversation in the stewards’ booth after Velazquez’s comments on ESPN were made known — and that the distribution of veterinary staff on-track be reviewed. What seems most likely to result is a negative — the report recommends that other industry groups consider media training and pre-race interview rules for jockeys, and “consider the impact of post parade jockey interviews on wagering integrity.”

But the problem wasn’t that Velazquez spoke honestly on television about how his mount was warming up, and the answer isn’t to prevent future on-camera revelations. This game needs more transparency, not less.

Going back to the stewards’ pre-race discussion:

BECRAFT cannot recall the exact conversation among the stewards after they came aware of VALEZQUEZ’S comments but remembers it as follows:

BECRAFT: “We need to have a veterinarian look at this horse”.
LEIGH did not respond.
VEITCH: “If we do that we might as well scratch the horse”.
BECRAFT: “If there is something wrong with the horse that is what needs to be done”.
BECRAFT said an “eerie silence” followed this comment.

VEITCH denies hearing these comments from BECRAFT but acknowledges BECRAFT might have said it. VEITCH denies responding, “If we do that we might as well scratch the horse”. VEITCH does recall commenting to the other stewards “Let’s see what the jockey does”.

It’s not one of the KHRC’s recommendations, but perhaps it should have been — record the stewards as they work.

3/12/11 Addendum: Gregory Hall makes a good point re: the findings:

The report didn’t directly answer the central questions being debated by the racing public since the race — whether Life At Ten definitely should have been scratched beforehand because of her condition or whether gamblers who made her the second choice in the betting were defrauded by the decision to let her run.

What makes Becraft’s recalled conversation so striking is that if it occurred as recounted, then the answer to the latter question is a definite “yes.”

6/29/11 Addendum: In testimony tweeted by Courier-Journal reporter Greg Hall during the first day of the KHRC hearing into John Veitch’s role, the chief steward, “acknowledges he said calling vet would mean might as well scratch horse ‘and stand by it’.” More here on the hearing.

Pletcher: “Closed” Doors Troubling

Trainer Todd Pletcher has issued a statement in advance of the KHRC Life at Ten report due today. After recounting the events at the Breeders’ Cup and the investigation that followed the mare’s poor showing, he gets to the point:

What we don’t know are the contents of the “Report” which is scheduled to be presented to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission today because our request for a copy was declined. What we also don’t know is why this presentation is being made to the Commission behind “closed” doors where the public is excluded. This is a troubling approach and may be ignoring fundamental due process principles.

Wait, the report isn’t being presented publicly? That is disturbing …

The Paulick Report will attend the meeting and live blog whatever is released.

6:30 PM Update: The KHRC meeting may have been closed to the public, but the complete report is available for reading (PDF via TT). You can find the summary recommendations here (PDF). A couple notable quotes: “Many of the participants seemed to be waiting for someone else to take action” … “It is clear a communication breakdown contributed to this controversy” … “All three Stewards regretted their lack of action in this matter.”

Odds and Ends

Hong Kong is losing out to offshore bookies. “Engelbrecht estimates annual revenue for illegal bookmakers from Hong Kong horse races is equivalent to between one-third and 100 percent of the Jockey Club’s receipts.”

With ESPN’s exit, NBC is poised to pick up the Belmont Stakes.

Sounds as though Bill Mott should look for a new rider for To Honor and Serve: “I would be pretty surprised if Johnny would not be riding Uncle Mo.”

Bob Baffert says he’ll wait until the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on March 12 to start Jaycito. “I don’t want to run him short.”

What the Life at Ten debacle could mean for the NTRA Safety Alliance.

Andrew Beyer sees potential in new microbets, although he’s not wild about the lottery-like Gulfstream Rainbow Six. “It is, in my view, a sucker bet.” Is the new Pimlico Slider less of one, with its four-race sequence, 50-cent minimum, 18% takeout, and a “staggering” number of combinations?

Odds and Ends

Blind Luck is raring to go for the El Encino Stakes next Sunday. She worked seven furlongs on Santa Anita on Friday in 1:25.20 and then galloped out another seven furlongs. “For a slightly built filly, she has loads of energy,” observed Jay Privman. On Sunday, it was The Factor flying over the Santa Anita dirt, going five furlongs in :58 flat. “He went a little too fast — he got away from the rider,” said trainer Bob Baffert of the 3-year-old colt.

Culture clash at the Big A? “I feel like I’m in an OTB! I feel like I’m in an OTB!,” LATG overhears an Aqueduct patron telling a security guard. Friday was the one month anniversary of NYC OTB’s closure. Funny, but the parlors already seem like something out of the far past, which I suppose says something about how removed from the mainstream life of the city they had become. (If you’d like to remember days at the OTB, here’s an unexpectedly poignant little video that captures the operation’s waning hours.) While there are some pains as the new element is absorbed into the track scene, NYRA’s efforts to attract displaced OTB bettors are paying off with higher ontrack handle and 2,434 new NYRA Rewards customers since December 8. On Saturday, the new Belmont Café took in a high point $137,889 in wagers from 325 players. “It just goes to show you that simple accommodations — a clean bathroom and a decent place to eat — can go a long way,” writes Jerry Bossert. There’s a still a significant shortfall in NYRA’s total handle, but the trend is positive.

So, the investigation into the l’affaire Life at Ten is ongoing, with the Office of the Inspector General in the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet being brought in “to have some independent review for certain aspects of it.” That’s KHRC executive director Lisa Underwood talking to Jennie Rees, who also reports that the KHRC has conducted 90 interviews regarding the Breeders’ Cup Distaff Ladies’ Classic fiasco. Ninety? Once this investigation concludes, how about another into what’s been a frustratingly opaque and slow process.

A New Year’s resolution particularly relevant to the above: “Protect the punter.”

Final handle numbers for 2010 were down 7.3% from 2009, to $11.4 billion from $12.3 billion. That’s the lowest annual total since 1995. “Obviously, we are losing bettors to other forms of gambling,” TRA executive vice president Chris Scherf tells Janet Patton. “We are in the midst of an unmanaged, market-driven contraction touching most aspects of the racing business.” Unmanaged is the key word, and nowhere is that more apparent right now that in the date dispute shaping up in southern Florida between Calder and Gulfstream. As for losing out to other games, sports bettors and poker players are pretty upfront about why they’re not paying much attention to racing.

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