JC / Railbird


Tipping Point?

Dutrow in happier days.

“RICK DUTROW DONE,” was the search term that led someone to Railbird this morning, presumably seeking more on yesterday’s shocking news that the KHRC denied the trainer a Kentucky license because of his lengthy list of violations and license application inconsistencies. “I never thought I’d see the day when a big-name trainer was held to task for his misdeeds,” tweeted Ryan Goldberg. Regardless of what happens next, there’s no denying, as the Racing Post put it so well, that “controversial trainer Rick Dutrow hit a new career low” on Wednesday. He has a chance to hit another in May, when New York reviews his license, or possibly when his biggest client, IEAH, pulls its stock from his barn. “Obviously, we can’t be in a position where our horses can’t run in certain jurisdictions,” Michael Iavarone told DRF.

A restraining order will make it possible for Amen Hallelujah, entered by Dutrow before his hearing, to start in the Vinery Madison today*.

Brooklyn Backstretch has posted a timely interview with RCI president Ed Martin on Dutrow’s record and the letter Martin wrote to the NYSRWB in February calling for an examination of his license: “His record is his record.” That’s just it, and Dutrow doesn’t help himself when he makes excuses:

He also said any misinformation on his license applications were not intentional but were due to the fact others completed the paperwork for him, and he just signed it.

Or refuses to take responsibility:

Dutrow said that was because he could not remember whether the incident occurred within the time frame stipulated on the application, but the committee could get copies of his criminal record in order to get the specifics.

What made the KHRC decision all the more interesting was the context. It’s spring, and racing seems to be in the mood to clean house. The movement to ban raceday medications is suddenly gaining real momentum. The latest group to sign on is the Breeders’ Cup, which announced today that its board:

… also endorsed in principle the recently announced recommendation of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) to eliminate the use of race-day medications in North American racing and decided to appoint a sub-committee with the objective of developing a plan and a timetable for the elimination of race-day medication in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

American racing is going drug-free! I don’t see what could stop … oh, right:

Saying they support efforts to limit race-day medications, two prominent Thoroughbred trainers said they hope the initiatives do not go so far as to ban use of the anti-bleeder drug known as Salix.

The horsemen are going to take to some work to win over:

The Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents all licensed owners and trainers, hasn’t discussed stricter medication rules, said president Rick Hiles, a trainer.

“We believe in therapeutic medications to help the animals,” he said, “so we’re probably not going to endorse it.”

But what about the celebrity owners, Mr. Hiles? Spare them a thought, as TDN publisher Barry Weisbord does in a column appearing yesterday:

When a prominent t.v. personality such as Bobby Flay or a successful young businessman like Mike Repole or Kevin Plank — any of whom could participate in any sport they’d like — decides to spend his free time participating in Thoroughbred racing, what do we do? We make it tougher on him by forcing him to continually answer this question: Why do you spend your time in an industry which drugs its athletes?

Asking them to answer that question, be it in the lead-up to a major race, or when they’re receiving some other recognition in their professional lives and the topic of racing comes up, is not only unfair, but has to diminish their enjoyment of their participation in racing.

Actually, I get this. When I talk to people who don’t know much about racing, the question of drugs often comes up, and I find myself choosing my words carefully and trying to tell the truth but not make it sound so, so bad. There’s a perception of shadiness attached to even the legal medications, regardless of their therapeutic qualities. Banning raceday drugs is about doing right by horses, and giving horseplayers and casual fans reason to trust in the integrity of the game — which is why all the meds, including Lasix, must go.

*Turns out, Amen’s start took a last-minute trainer change, an unusual move with implications for trainer responsibility (via @o_crunk).

4/15/11 Addendum: This is pretty funny:

Sallusto was not on the grounds for the [Vinery Madison], leaving jockey John Velazquez as the sole person to answer questions in the wake of the filly’s runner-up effort.

“No one,” was Velazquez’s response when asked who gave him pre-race instructions.

When asked whether he had talked with the trainer after the race, Velazquez replied, “Who is the trainer?”

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.”

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