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.