A pyramid of errors

When a plane crashes, investigators often find that it is not a single error that brought the craft down, but rather a pyramid of mistakes that culminated in disaster. This model is often true for most big screw-ups, and certainly seemed in action in the case of the Life at Ten fiasco at the Breeders’ Cup.

For those of you who hadn’t been paying attention: Life at Ten, a mare trained by Todd Pletcher, turned out not to be fit to run the Ladies Classic (god, I cringe every time I write that name – sounds like a deodorant brand. Can’t we PLEASE change it back to the Distaff??). Apparently Pletcher knew – or at least strongly suspected – that something was wrong with the horse. He told the jockey. The jockey told ESPN, the network covering the races in the United States, that the horse didn’t feel right. Nobody told the vets or stewards and the horse ran the race – or didn’t. She broke from the gate and then immediately trailed off to lope around at little more than a hack canter. The jockey was praised for “doing the right thing” by not insisting on more when clearly his horse was having a problem.

There is plenty wrong here, but let’s work backwards. Johnny Velazquez, the jockey, did not do the right thing. From most accounts, the mare had tied up, which means that any move she made was causing more damage. I haven’t heard or read anything since that tells us what was really wrong with Life at Ten, so I don’t know for sure whether or not she tied up. But when a jockey senses his horse is not galloping properly, the only right thing to do is stop. Immediately. But even before it got that far, he should have notified the stewards or vets on duty that something appeared to be wrong. He apparently did not do that. Now let’s back up another step. Apparently, the horse was moving extremely badly before entering the gate – so much so that even casual viewers who knew nothing about horses suspected something was wrong. In full disclosure, I have not been able to find any video of the warm-up, so I don’t know how bad it was. But there were at least three vets stationed at the starting gate, not one of them paying attention. Back up again. An ESPN commentator who is a former jockey asked Velazquez about the horse, and Velazquez said she wasn’t moving right. This prompted an ESPN producer to phone the stewards and notify them that something may be amiss. The stewards decided to ignore the potential problem. And then back up one final, and most important, step. In the saddling enclosure, Pletcher told Velazquez the horse didn’t seem right.

Rules governing horse racing around the world vary somewhat (with the most glaring example being the panoply of medication allowed to be used on horses running in the United States) but there is one rule that is universal:  The buck stops with the trainer. No matter what happens to a horse, for better or worse, the trainer must take the ultimate responsibility. It is not permissible to blame the vets, the jockey, the stewards, the weather, the anything. That is why most of us have gray hair (those of us that still have hair) and a high alcohol tolerance.

After the race, Pletcher said his mare must have had a reaction to her Lasix shot. This is lame and wrong on so many levels it makes my stomach turn over. First of all, it points up Problem No. 1 in American racing: That this excuse can even exist. The Breeders’ Cup should take a first, bold step and ban all race-day medication in its races. The organization wants to call the Breeders’ Cup event the “World Championship” of thoroughbred racing. There is no way it will ever live up to that title as long as the usual race-day meds permitted across America are allowed in Breeders’ Cup races. If the Breeders’ Cup would take this step, it might encourage further change, like eliminating race-day medication in two-year-olds. American racing has to get itself on a serious methadone program and it has to start somewhere.

But back to Pletcher’s excuse.  Life at Ten ran 16 races before she was loaded in the gate at the Breeders’ Cup. Lasix was certainly not new to her. Pletcher hinted in some of his remarks that she had problems with Lasix before, but “not before a race,” meaning she was probably shot up with it for workouts, a common practice in American racing.  The injection of Lasix is usually administered about four hours before post time (during which time the horse’s kidneys are thrown into overdrive as it pees out about 20 kilos in body weight).  Although Todd Pletcher has more than 200 horses in training, he apparently had enough personal knowledge of this particular animal to realize she was not acting like a healthy horse when he saddled her. He chose to send her out to the track anyway.

Life at Ten was sent off second-favorite in the betting, meaning this whole affair costs punters millions. Those who were lucky enough to pick up on the ESPN feed could change their bets, but anyone out of range could not.

Various racing authorities in America are ducking this like a hot potato, which is their usual reaction to this sort of thing. The solution proposed by the chief steward in Kentucky is not to question the judgment of the jockey, trainer or vets involved but rather to ban comments by jockeys to broadcasters once the jockey is in the saddle. I’m not making this up. This harkens back to a similar event in France a few years back when Equidia, the horse racing channel, decided it would be fun to put microphones on a few trotting drivers during a race. Not long into the experiment, the mikes picked up what amounted to race-fixing as one leading driver exhorted another to close a hole and not let a horse through. “Don’t be an asshole,” the driver yelled, “close it up, close it up!” Rather than investigate the situation, stewards promptly banned the microphones.

It’s very frustrating to see the sport I love, and one that I completely changed my life to be a part of, continue to shoot itself in the foot. Every time an event like this happens, I keep thinking OK, now is finally the chance to make a change for the better. And every time I am wrong. I still score the French authorities WAY ahead of their American counterparts in terms of how to run the sport. Viva la France. At least Pletcher couldn’t get away with it over here.

Oh, and by the way: Goldikova and Zenyatta were stars. Jane Smiley was right on Mike Smith’s ride – the nose Zenyatta lost by equaled just a fraction of a second’s hesitation on the part of the jockey. My friend Jean-Paul Gallorini had a different take on the ride, though, and it bears mentioning. Rather than moving too late, he maintains that Smith moved too soon. Zenyatta wasn’t balanced coming through the turn, and that was when he was asking her to move up. Gallorini said that if Smith had balanced the horse before asking for the move, he would have won. Interesting. In any case, clearly Zenyatta should stay in training, as Goldikova will. This fantasy about her going off to make super-babies is nonsense. This is a racehorse, and she should be racing. She is not old. She started her career late. Let her run – it’s clearly what she was born to do.

12 Replies to “A pyramid of errors”

  1. Thanks for so eloquently sharing your insight and expertise in this matter. It’s troubling that a trainer, especially someone like Pletcher, would elect to race a horse that he may suspect something’s amiss. Additionally, it’s baffling that a jockey would make a remark in a live telecast, prior to the race.

    Interestingly enough, this whole brouhaha didn’t develop until long after bettors shredded their losing tickets … me included.

  2. Jour de Galop reported that out of all the horses entered, only Plumania and Bekhebad ran without using Lasix. Drug use in racing in the US,(actually that can be applied to human use also), is ridiculously high. Todd Pletcher actually received his Eclipse for Outstanding Trainer while he was banned from racing for a drug infraction use on horses.

    It is interesting also that the jockey who made the dangerous move, almost causing another horse to go down, and interfered with Calvin Borel’s run, leading to the fist fight in the paddock was disqualified. He received a fine and six days suspension – only a judge has ruled against the suspension because it would interfere with his making a living with his riding. It was only luck that his move didn’t result in serious injury to other horses and jockeys in the race.

    Also, the two year old who slipped and fell in the first Turf race – got up and ran off, seemingly ok. Later report was that he broke a shoulder and was put down. Another animal worth more for insurance that alive.

    And they wonder why racing is in trouble in the US. Breeder’s Cup didn’t show the sport well this year, in spite of Zenyatta and Goldikova.

  3. there are a lot of excesses in American horse racing but one of them isn’t rule books! 30 years ago rule books were prevalent and utilized. rules and infractions were printed daily in the morning telegraph and subsequently the daily racing form. it all stopped and even the TRPB couldn’t find a rule book these days. Why? the regulatory bodies quit printing them because they can’t afford to! As a result we have created a tower of babel with licensees coming from scores of different countries with many different habits and languages. If the two most likely participants had reacted to a well published rule book, the Life At Ten fiasco as it is being called here, would never have happened, Pletcher would have known that he was violating a rule in the first instance and Valesquez would have known it in the second. My exactor wager is that neither one of them has ever seen or read a rule book. Pletcher is the leading training in America. Valesquez is the Chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild. Reading a rule book should be a prerequisite for a license! Every other sport in the world lives by rules as is seen daily on the tube! It is a disgrace that the oldest sport in the world does not!

  4. Gina, you got your wish. You can see the replay of the post-parade for the Ladies Classic and Life at Ten. Go to the Paulick Report. There is a statement by the owner of Life at Ten, Candy DeBartolo. In the statement is a link to the entire broadcast of ESPN of the Breeders Cup races.

  5. LAT didn’t looked tied-up to me, she stumbled a few times before the race, she looked sluggish and out of it. I can see why regulatory vets could have missed her being off if they were standing in one spot without being able to follow her like we did on television. However, her trainer and jockey knew that something was wrong with LAT and they should have chosen caution and have scratched her.

    It is terrible that despite the cold night LAT walked all the way back to her barn without a warm blanket. It would have been wrong not to have a blanket on her back even if LAT had not looked and acted questionable prior to the race and obviously not well after the race. She was hot and a little sweaty and obviously sick and it was cold. What were they thinking?

    Drugs should be banned at least 2 weeks before a race and on race day. Horses are either healthy and can run off drugs or they are not. If they are sick or injured and in need of therapeutic drugs they should be resting and recovering from their ailments, not training and racing. Some of these therapeutic drugs are used to enhance performance. Lasix helps hide overages of drugs like Bute and many believe that it helps hide illegal drugs.

  6. John, she looked very docile, but horses look alot worse than that and start every single race card at every single track in America, imo.

    I strongly disagree with your statement about horseplayers getting screwed. For every hardworking horseplayer, looking at the horses as they go to post is a must. Lazy horseplayers may have once again given an edge to the harder working amongst us by not bothering to pay attention to the post parade and warmup. That screwing, if it is one, is 100% self induced.

  7. Goldikova and Zenyatta saved the day for the Breeders Cup. The ineptness of the racing officials and track supervisors was inexcusable. Pletcher and the boy should get days and fined. The stewards did there usual political side step. All this in Kentucky where they invented the horse.
    Gina, you are right. Zenyatta should race.

  8. So well said, Gina. I’m more angry about this whole appalling episode with Life at Ten than I can express. I share your lifelong love of this “sport” – but perhaps what we love is the “idea” of this sport, not necessarily the harsh reality of it that has emerged too often these days.

    I also hope that something will change, as a result of this debacle, but I understand your pessimism. I just don’t want to embrace a sense of futility about it this time. It MUST change, so I hope your voice, and that of others with a platform, or at least the power to keep a bright spotlight intently focused on travesties like this, will continue to make the loud noises necessary to propel the sport toward such change. Inertia can’t be allowed to prevail here the way it did at Churchill Downs for Life at Ten.

  9. First of all, I feel compelled to weigh in on the comments authored by LetItRideMike seemingly gloating over his post parade observations that LIFE AT TEN was off and not playable and those who did not pick up on her condition and used her deserve their “self-induced” fate.
    Simply put, that horse should never have left the paddock. All us sequence players in the pick 3’s, 4’s, etc were the ones screwed. I was at Churchill along with 70,000 others and got nowhere near the paddock, did not have access to the ESPN feed and from my perch at the clubhouse turn could not pick up on her post parade. Screwed yes, self-induced?
    Gina, if he hasn’t already I think Ray Paulick should feature your blog on his Paulick Report website.

  10. Excellent article. Hopefully this info is still good for viewing, but for info on Life At Ten’s race coverage of the Distaff race, here is an excerpt which I pulled from The Paulick Report. It is a statement on behalf of Life At Ten’s owner:

    “Accordingly, we invite him and anyone else to go to:

    http://espn.go.com/espn3/index/_/sport/horse%20racing#.

    There you can click on Replay, Friday Breeders Cup World Championship and when the video appears, click and drag on the bar below the picture to 3:19.42 and watch for the next twelve minutes or so. In particular, view at 3:30.15 to 3:30.47 and you will see Life At Ten stumble and stagger and appear weak-kneed almost to the point of falling. A little dull, you say? Now, there are three stewards who are suppose to be viewing the post parade with binoculars and via the most sophisticated video surveillance available, along with numerous ESPN cameras trained on the post parade. What’s more, the three state veterinarians are at the starting gate looking for “overt” signs. Failing to test her after the race only exacerbates the problem.”

    Here is the link to the Paulick Report for the entire statement:

    http://www.paulickreport.com/blog/statement-on-behalf-of-candy-debartolo-owner-of-life-at-ten/

  11. There is always a post mortem on all important sporting events. Zenyatta was magnificent but if the trainer had worked her in company over the CD main track she would have won. The CD main track is always quirky. On BCC day it was deep and cuppy. Smith did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. It was obvious she didn’t like the track in the early going but adjusted and closed like a great horse. Bottom line, trainer error, if we need to blame somebody, other the Blame.

  12. There is always a post mortem on all important sporting events. Zenyatta was magnificent but if the trainer had worked her in company over the CD main track she would have won. The CD main track is always quirky. On BCC day it was deep and cuppy. Smith did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. It was obvious she didn’t like the track in the early going but adjusted and closed like a great horse. Bottom line, trainer error, if we need to blame somebody, other then Blame.

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