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The Case of Life At Ten and the 2010 Ladies' Classic

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The incident with Life At Ten has recieved a buch of attention over the past week with accusations flying to anyone and everyone involved with the horse - the jockey, the trainer, the stewards and the vets.  Much of the discussion has centered around who's to blame as opposed to future prevention of a similar incident.  It's important we look at both when attempting to assess what happened.

Let's first set-up the situation as best we can: as Life At Ten was being saddled in the paddock prior to last Friday's Ladies' Classic, trainer Todd Pletcher noticed that she seemed a bit dull but that the filly wasn't showing any other signs of being injured or sick.  Her temperature, taken the morning of the race, was normal, and physically, she appeared sound except for the fact that she was listless and uninterested.  

Todd Pletcher stated the following regarding her paddock condition:

"I told [jockey John Velazquez] when we left the paddock that I was concerned with the way she saddled," Pletcher said. "She was abnormally quiet and sedate-like. I told him, ‘Warm her up well.' She clearly probably should not have run."    

So right off the bat, we have a trainter that believes something is amiss with his filly but not in any tangible, lame-like manner.  He doesn't like her mannerisms, which are an important and vital aspect of understanding the condition of a thoroughbred horse. In short, the trainer has reservations.

Life At Ten leaves the paddock and heads to the track for the post parade and her pre-race warm-up.  It is at this point that jockey John Velasquez reports to ESPN analyst Jerry Bailey that something wasn't right with LIfe At Ten and he states the following to Jerry Bailey and the national television audience:

"Right now I'm not sure, Jerry, to tell you the truth. She's not warming up the way she normally does."     

Now we have a trainer AND a jockey not sure about her condition.  

Then we get a convoluted series of events where a producer with ESPN phones the stewards who may or may not have seen the entire segment with John Velazquez and Jerry Bailey.  The on-track vet, according to an interview conduction by ESPN's Jeanne Edwards prior to the race and off-camera, was not aware of the statements to Jerry Bailey.  Neither Todd Pletcher or John Velazquez inform the stewards or vets of their concerns and, ultimately, the horses are loaded into the starting gate with nary an official inquiry. 

What are we left with at this point?  We've got a horse that the trainer and the jockey did't feel was 100% ready to run but the vets haven't observed any physical problems with the animal that would warrant a post-time scratch and may or may not be aware of the jockey's reservations.  And neither the jockey or the trainer informed the stewards that they felt she should be scatched, although the jockey related those feelings to the TV crew.  The gate opens and Life At Ten immediately drops to the back of the pack.  Jockey John Velazquez describes the race:

 

 

"She didn't want to run today," Velazquez said immediately after the race. "I tried to get her to go [in the warm-up] and I couldn't even catch up to the pony. She was never interested in running at all."    

 


The day after the race, Life At Ten spiked a temperature, which she didn't have the morning of the race.  The spiked temperature signifies that she probably had an illness or infection, just as it does in humans.  In non-horse racing terms, Life At Ten was coming down with a flu and wasn't in the mood to run as fast as she could around a race track.  It's a hard reminder that sometimes horses feel great and sometimes they don't.  They are flesh and blood, not machines.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, on-call vet for the Breeders' Cup, issued the following statement after the race (Press Release Life At Ten):

"Life At Ten, along with all of the other horses that started in the Ladies' Classic, was observed on the track prior to entering the starting gate by three veterinarians.  The vet team did not observe any physical problems. She was examined again after the race and again no physical problems were observed. A more in-depth examination will be conducted this evening and tomorrow."

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commisiion also released a statement following the race:

"From the time Life at Ten was brought to the paddock, saddled, led to the track for the post parade, warmed up and loaded into the starting gate, neither trainer Todd Pletcher nor jockey Johnny Velasquez voiced any concerns they may have had regarding Life at Ten to any racing officials, veterinarians or the outriders prior to the running of the Ladies Classic," the KHRC said in a statement."

The racing industry should always strive to ensure the safety of the horses and the integrity of the race for the wagering public.  It appears in this situation that errors were made in both respects.  The wagering aspect, however, is certainly the more nebulous of the two in terms of making everyone happy.  There's no doubt that there are legions of players that bet on Life At Ten that feel "they were robbed" by the actions (or lack thereof) prior to the race.  While I wholeheartedly believe that changes in pre-race observations and evaluations are required to provide additional integrity, I also believe there is a risk inherent in a bet on any horse race.

Anytime you put a wager on a horse in a race, it's a risk.  Every single bet made on a horse in history is a decision made without 100% of the information.  Additionally, physical handicapping is as much as part of the game as reading the form or crunching numbers in a spreadsheet.  We never know all of the information and we never know for sure if a horse is truly ready to run.  Even the trainers and jockeys don't always know.  

Anybody that was able to watch the pre-race warm-up of Life At Ten and observe her mannerisms probably had a leg up on those that didn't.  If you were watching ESPN at the time and you saw John Velazquez speak with Jerry Bailey, you had plenty of warning that Life At Ten wasn't going to run her race.  Any bet made on the filly after observing the warm-up or the comments was a wager made against the evidence presented.

If a bettor wasn't able to observe Life At Ten's warm-up or weren't in a position to see the ESPN interview, while that certainly stinks and probably cost you money if you bet on her, that's part of the game.  There have been plenty of times in history were one person bet on a horse expecting on outcome while another bet on a different horse due to being able to observe something that the other did not.  The idea that if a bettor couldn't see what was happening pre-race or in the paddock means they were screwed is faulty logic, at best.  If that's the true belief of a player, then they should never bet on a race, ever.  However, the inherent risk and uncertain nature of wagering on horses does not excuse those involved from ensuring that guidelines are in place to ensure protection of the wagering public.

I disagree with the suggestion that the stewards or on-track vets bear the primary blame for this event.  In terms of soundness, Life At Ten was okay to race just not to race fast or at her usual level.  According to the vets, she showed no sign of physical injury that suggested that she should not be in the starting gate.  If a horse shows any signs of injury or lameness, it is the job of the stewards an on-call vets to observe that, report it, and take action.  While I think better protocol should be in place to prevent a situation like this from occurring in the future, I don't believe it was the stewards that were primarily at fault for what took place.  

It was the responsibility of the jockey or the trainer to bring any concerns about their horse to the attention of the track vet or the stewards if they felt something was amiss.  Those two individuals are far more in-tuned with the condition of their animal than third party observers that watch hundreds of horses every day.  And I don't think that informing an ESPN analyst is enough - John Velazquez should have told an on-track racing official.  If he had the forethought to tell Jerry Bailey something was amiss, he had the ability to tell an on-track official.  He didn't.

Horses are not machines and when they race they are rarely in 100% peak condition.  But if they are so far from being ready to run that their trainer and their jockey feel that something isn't right, then it is the responsibilities of those individuals to notify racing officials in order for the animal to be scratched from the race.  

Assessing blame and pointing fingers due to this incident, however satisfying for some, does nothing to prevent the situation from occurring again.  The important thing is to ensure that protocols are in place to identify a similar situation in a timely manner. From the steward/vet side, I have a suggestion as to something that might serve as a better protocol than simply passive observation.  

After the horses are saddled in the paddock, each trainer should be asked by the vet present the following questions:

  1. Did you notice anything unusual when saddling your horse?
  2. Do you believe the horse is proper condition to race?
  3. Do you have any reservations about racing this horse today?

Three questions - none of which would take very long to ask and each of which gives the trainer ample opportunity to raise any issues he may have with his horse.  Perhaps the horse would be scratched on sight or perhaps it wouldn't, either way, racing officials would be aware of potential issues and could take a closer look leading up to post-time.

Once the horses leave the paddock, finish the post parade and begin their pre-race warm-up, there should be a second inquiry. Perhaps a few minutes prior to post-time of every race, the on-track vets approach each horse and rider as they near the starting gate and ask the rider three more questions:

  1. How did your horse warm-up prior to approaching the starting gate?
  2. Do you feel anything is wrong with your horse?
  3. Do you believe this horse should run in this race?

It would take probably 30-seconds or less to ask the jockey those three questions and in those 30-seconds the jockey would have ample opportunity to inform the vet of any misgivings.  The stewards and vets should still conduct pre-race observations in order to notice any physical lameness, but these additional protocols would allow them to receive valuable feedback from both the trainer and rider, two people who are intimately familiar with the mannerisms and attitudes of their horses.

Ultimately, the case of Life At Ten at this year's Breeders' Cup was a case of failure to get the right information to the right people.  The parties that should have been talking - the jockey, trainer, stewards, and vets - were instead talking to reporters, producers, and TV analysts.  The disconnect was massive and glaring.  Fortunately, this disconnect can be overcome with just a few simple changes to pre-race procedure.  The safety of the horses and the integrity of the game demands nothing less.