The Last Race

Wes Vegas, a 3-year old gelding making his first start in the $39,000 maiden-claiming race at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, was favored to win at 5-2.  Cheering his namesake on was owner Brian Sigler’s grandson Wes, and the rest of his family. “There was definitely an emotional connection,” said Sigler.

The thoroughbred protégé, whose bloodline could be traced back to the legendary Northern Dancer and Seattle Slew, was quickly creeping up on the leader, Hook and Lateral. Seconds later, moving to the outside, he had moved up from sixth to second place.

His mane was blowing in the wind as he galloped around the final quarter mile when suddenly he took one wrong bone cracking reach. “He was really moving well and then his leg snapped and it was devastating,” said Sigler.  His head bobbed, dipping towards his hooves, dirt flying in his face as Jockey David Cohen pulled him in, guiding Wes Vegas to the outside as the other horses sped past.

The track announcer, missing nothing, changed pace momentarily to acknowledge the stricken horse. “Oh and Wes Vegas is out of the race,” he said. It was his first and last race.

 Wes Vegas was not a sound horse going into the race. The New York Racing and Wagering Board records show that he had taken several drugs in the month leading up to the race. Bute, Vetalog, Lasix, Adequan, and Banamine, a mixture of anti-inflammatory drugs, diuretics, and joint lubricants that veterinarian Dr. O’Brien administered to Wes Vegas as late as two days before his death. Sigler, of Winning Move Stables, denied knowing that his horse was given drugs. As far as he was aware, the horse was in perfect health. “We leave it up to Dominic and he gives us the updates.”

On Sunday April 29th, trainer Dominic Galluscio denied that his horse had been given drugs. “I’m sure that myself and any other trainers that we talked to wouldn’t have entered the horse if there was anything wrong,” he said. “The horse was training well.”  A few hours later, the New York Times reported a contradictory story. In 2010 one of Galluscio’s horses, Maggie’s Prince, tested positive for Clenbuterol. She was one of only eight horses who tested positive that year.

After being read a list of the drugs and various diagnoses a week later, Galluscio, admitted that the thoroughbred previously had a fever, a possible ulcer and had suffered some swelling as a result of a cut to his right front cannon bone merely weeks before his debut. He said he treated the horse the same way you would treat a child with a scrape or fever. “Any medication we use in my barn is only therapeutic,” said Galluscio. “It’s only to help the horse keep its ability and not to mask pain.

The drugs, Galluscio said, were not administered to improve the horse’s chances of winning or to allow the gelding to run injured. Wes Vegas, he said, had fully recovered come race day. “Once he was better, he was better and fine,” he said. “We wouldn’t run the horses unless they are at their best,” he added.  And when asked whether it would have been in the horse’s best interest to delay his debut, Gallusio said, “Not at all, that is totally ridiculous.” As late as 10:00 am on March 2nd, the day prior to his final race, Wes Vegas was given a dose of bute, a shorthand for “phenylbutazone,”a drug that decreases pain and inflammation.

Wes Vegas was described as a dark bay or chestnut, but his pigment was so dark that he appeared to be pure black, like most of those in his lineage. “If you brought out 20 horses, your eye would draw to him immediately; good size, flashy and looked like fancy,” said breeder Jaime LaMonica. “He was a rock star from day one”

At 16 hands and 2 inches, Wes Vegas was bigger, stronger and prettier than the other horses at Empire Stud Farm in Hudson, New York, where he was foaled on April 14th 2009. His father, Sun River, won the Florida Derby and placed at both the Hollywood Turf Cup and the Belmont Stakes. The stallion earned close to $1 million dollars during his 17-start career. LaMonica purchased the stallion for $4 million dollars, and wanted his new $200,000 dollar mare Gold Ginny, which he bought specifically to breed with Sun River, to produce early.  “We want to typically get 2-year-old success, it’s important to stallion careers,” said LaMonica. Unfortunately, Sun River died later that year from an apparent heart attack.

Wes Vegas took after Sun River. “He was really a great horse, I had very high expectations for him,” LaMonica said. “He was easily one of the prettiest horses in our stable and awful good to be around.”

After a few months, LaMonica brought Wes Vegas down to his farm in Lexington, Kentucky where he could be turned out every day for a little sunshine and fresh grass, hand walked for an hour every afternoon, trained and then breezed every 6 or 7 days. “I think that helps the mental process,” he said.

LaMonica and his team took their time preparing Wes Vegas for his first race. “He was ready to make the August races of his 2-year old, but because of a breathing issue we backed up and brought him back over to the farm.” But before he could complete his first race, bloodline agent Gerry Brockobank, impressed by Wes Vegas’s workout times, approached LaMonica and his farm last October with an offer. “He’s New York bred and everyone wants those New York bred for the Aqueduct league because the purses are so good,” said LaMonica.

Although LaMonica and Empire Stud farm loved Wes Vegas, they sold him to Steve and Brian Sigler for $25,000 dollars and moved him from Lexington to trainer Galluscio’s stable in New York in Plainview, New York.  At first, Galluscio said that Wes Vegas had a fractious nature. Galluscio said he was skittish, slightly aggressive and would bite at people. “We decided to castrate him and it did change his demeanor and that helped,” he said. Afterwards, the gelding ate well, trained nicely and enjoyed galloping. LaMonica, however, said he had never seen this side of Wes Vegas. “He was never mean and aggressive.” Gelding an animal is expensive, requires a recovery period, and excludes them from the breeding process.

On February 17th 2012, Wes Vegas was entered in his first race at Aqueduct.  “He was a nice, young pristine animal with a lot of potential,” said Galluscio. Wes Vegas drew gate 12, the furthest gate from the outside and the position with the lowest odds of winning. To ensure he had the best shot at glory, Galluscio and Winning Move Stabled scratched him from the race. But medical records show that Wes Vegas was given two different anti-inflammatory drugs on February 16, 17 and 18th. Galluscio said it was for therapeutic reasons only. “Yes, he had a scratch on his leg with a little inflammation around,” said Galluscio. “We wanted to get the inflammation out, not so that he could train the next day.”

Referring to his boss, Sigler, Galluscio said, “He runs them where he feels they have the best chance at winning.” That’s why, after two scratches, Wes Vegas was entered in the claiming race on March 3, 2012. The men had no intention of selling Wes Vegas. It was the race both Galluscio and Sigler though he’d be most competitive in.  “He was a good horse, not a great horse,” said Sigler. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have put him in a Maiden Claiming race.” Neither thought that he would be claimed as a first time starter. Gregory DiPrimia, who refused to respond to multiple calls and emails, claimed Wes Vegas for $15,000. “I think that they claimed him because I had won with two first time starters the week before,” said Galluscio.

Wes Vegas was running well in training and in the race. Even jockey David Cohen thought they were golden. Cohen said he performed like only 10% of first time horses.

Then came the injury.  “You never want to see it,” said Cohen. He was shaken up for the rest of his rides that day. “You try to block it out,” he added. Wes Vegas was travelling comfortably and in the process of making a move. His position and level of ease during the ride led LaMonica to question the events. “I know breakdowns happen,” he said, “but you always wonder if he was under your control would you do something different.” In this situation, although the dirt track was muddy after an evening of rain, he thinks the jockey and trainer did everything right. If he was the decision maker, however, he said he might not have run Wes Vegas because the track was less than ideal for his debut. “I wouldn’t have raced him because I’d prefer to have him race on a fair track.”

Wes Vegas was casted and taken away in an ambulance, where he was later euthanized at the receiving barn. Galluscio said the vets would have made the ultimate decision to euthanize Wes Vegas. “Trainers don’t make that call, you do what the docs say,” he said. X-Rays revealed a dislocated joint and a broken sesamoid and cannon bone in his left ankle, the same catastrophic injury his ancestor Gold Beauty suffered in 1990. The vets arrived, placed a temporary cast on his foot, and vanned him away “It was devastating for the owners and myself cause we are around the animal everyday,” said Galluscio.

When LaMonica was contacted two months later, he was under the impression Wes Vegas was still alive. “Poor new owners bought a horse that probably is going to be capable of pony rides at best,” he said in response to a question about the incident he had witnessed on television. And according to Lee Park at the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, the owners who claimed Wes Vegas, were responsible for all his medical bills. “Once that starting gate opens, the horse has been claimed, that horse is the property of the claimer,” he said.

“I would have hoped that he would have won the race that day and then continued on and have a nice career and get to compete at Saratoga,” said Galluscio.

“It was awful. It was very sad,” said LaMonica.


Want a Future in Journalism? Move to Kenya.

View the published article on the Huffington Post.

Global state-funded television news channels like Al Jazeera, China’s CCTV and RT (formerly Russia Today) have proliferated in recent years — and now they’re expanding, with a host of new services that tailor the news to local interests.

Al Jazeera, for example, has hired close to 200 people for an all-Turkish channel. RT now offers Spanish-language reports. And at CCTV, programs that debuted early this year include “Biz Asia America,” a daily business show targeted at the U.S., and “Americas Now,” a weekly newsmagazine for Latin America.

But one of the busiest new markets for the global channels is, perhaps, a surprising one: East Africa, where the new daily program, CCTV Africa, launched in January. Expected later this year is Al Jazeera Swahili, a 24-hour news channel as well as new East Africa-focused half-hour daily news television programs in Swahili and English from a more traditional international broadcaster, BBC.

Why East Africa? All of these new operations are based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where the media business operates with relative freedom from government interference. And while many western countries are still suffering from economic slowdown, Kenya’s economy is on the rise — with growth of nine per cent in its GDP over the past decade, according to the World Bank.

That economic growth means more money for the advertising that global media hope will help sustain their new operations. Synovate, a Global Market Research Company, stated that the Kenyan media industry has experienced a tenfold increase in advertisers between 2006 and 2010.

China’s ambitious investments in Africa in recent years give it a particular incentive to target African media audiences, says Tom Rhodes, East African correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They see Kenya as an economic hub for trading, where they can do business from there, take resources from the media hub and use it as a transaction point.”

As Kenya’s largest trading partner, China also has a substantial financial investment in Kenya’s infrastructure — including playing a major role in the country’s switch to broadband connection. “The Chinese companies are doing all this work,” says Cowan. In return, the government has “granted them prime slots on domestic stations, not surprising because they have invested billions in the country. They are hoping to make a lot of money out of Africa.”

Others note that Kenya and its neighbours — like Somalia, home to the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents called al-Shabab — are undercovered on the global news stage. Few international stations have permanent bureaus in Kenya and there are no regional TV news stations that cater to both an international and African audience.

The East Africa startups of Al Jazeera and CCTV are creating tensions within Kenyan television journalism. Of Kenya’s five major television stations, two are regarded as pro-government, one is owned by the state and two are viewed as more independent. KTV, a private station, was the most-watched until it lost senior staff to CCTV this past year.

At first glance, it might seem puzzling that a Chinese channel, owned and operated by the Chinese government, would try to compete in Kenya’s already fairly competitive TV market. Chinese censors keep tight control over what is reported by state media within China. But Rhodes says things seem to be looser at CCTV Kenya than at CCTV China. “The censorship isn’t quite as rough,” he says. “I get the impression that there is a lot more press freedom and allowance.”

When CCTV started hiring to launch its new Africa program, it scoured Kenyan TV staffs, scoping out the competition’s talent. One Kenyan online news station, Jackal News, reported the network was looking to hire roughly 200 local journalists. And since none of the local stations have large staffs, “When two or three people are removed, that creates unrest and openings,” says James Smart, a news anchor for NTV.

Smart says six of his channel’s journalists — including two top anchors and an editor — were all hired by CCTV. One of the biggest losses was at KTN, where Beatrice Marshal — who had worked as deputy managing editor and anchor — was lured away to become lead anchor at CCTV.

Up against the deep pockets of China’s state funding it was almost impossible for Kenyan stations to hold on to highly experienced and talented staff. After being offered salaries twice what they earned at the Kenyan station, John Mwendwa, head of news at K24, says his network “lost some of its best reporters.” Saida Swaleh, a reporter at KTN, said her colleagues ran towards the money. “They came with fat checks and everyone wanted to go where the money is,” she says.

In addition to the larger salaries, reporters who move to an international network often get greater television exposure and travel opportunities. Signing with CCTV means their reports may be seen globally, via the Chinese broadcaster’s satellite channel, and not just within Kenya. But Mwendwa says that CCTV’s programming doesn’t resonate well with all Kenyans. Many, he says, are skeptical of their biases and “The perception of Chinese media is as having the interests of their people at heart.”

Inside Kenyan TV newsrooms, changes to programming had to be made as a result of lost employees. K24 “pulled one show off air and a second had to find a new cohost,” says Mwendwa. Although vacancies have been filled by employees hired from other local radio and television stations, some channels have suffered a decline in their ratings. KTN “is slowly dying because people do not really ‘trust’ the ‘rookies’” who have replaced veteran journalists hired away by CCTV, says George Nyabuga, assistant director at the University of Nairobi School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

While scrambling to find replacements, Kenyan network executives worked to create and implement incentive programs to keep their best and brightest. At NTV, for instance, new incentives were offered based on employee “experience, expertise, performance and planned growth within the organization,” says Sharleen Samat, the channel’s head of TV. “It is a competitive package,” says Samat, though she declined to give details.

Despite the tempting offers from global channels, some journalists remained faithful to their local stations. “CCTV isn’t reaching the kind of audience I’m reaching now,” says James Smart, the NTV news anchor. Despite having a smaller staff, Smart says NTV covers local news — particularly breaking stories — more thoroughly than the Chinese-owned network. When a grenade attack killed several people in a Nairobi bus terminal last month, it was the top story on every local station throughout the day. CCTV, however, reserved only two minutes of its coverage of the attack, says Swaleh.

While managers wring their hands about how to replace veterans lured to the global channels, some Kenyan reporters think their arrival could actually be a boon for local journalism, by opening many new job opportunities.

Before, competition for the few jobs available was so fierce that “unless one is exceptional, they can hardly get a job, particularly in a good or established station,” says Nyabuga. He says the new competition has the potential to improve journalistic standards and improve coverage of events in Kenya.

Some journalists say the increased competition has also forced news networks to offer more competitive salaries. “Local journalists are beginning to tell more stories from the entire East Africa,” says Mutiga Murimi, a reporter at K24. “And local media houses have already begun opening bureaus everywhere in the entire region.”

But the competition is set to grow much more fierce. Right now, CCTV offers only one hour of African programming each day, but Kenyan reporters say that Al Jazeera has begun recruiting for a 24-hour Swahili channel. It is expected to poach top Swahili reporters, but the hope is that Al Jazeera Swahili will force networks to put more resources and focus on Swahili programming.

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