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.