By T. D. Thornton
Carlo and Priscilla Vaccarezza won a $1.06-million jury award in a California court Feb. 25 over a veterinary malpractice and negligence lawsuit against the Equine Medical Center and Dr. Vince Baker, who is the longtime attending veterinarian for trainer Bob Baffert.
The case dates to the 2014 Breeders' Cup and a filly the Vaccarezzas owned and trained, Little Alexis. The couple alleged that she was mistreated by Baker for a lump on her jugular vein and cleared to race. Not only did Little Alexis finish ninth in the GI Filly & Mare Sprint at Santa Anita Park, but her condition became so grave that she was unable to fly to Kentucky right after the Breeders' Cup to sell as planned at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale.
The Vaccarezzas kept her in training, but Little Alexis never again competed in graded stakes. She had been appraised for $1.5 million as a stakes-winning racing prospect who was competitive in Grade I races, but later sold for far less than that amount, at $440,000.
The jury's award represents the difference in valuation from actual sales price, and the defendants will also be on the hook for interest accrued since Nov. 3, 2014, the date Little Alexis would have been sold.
“The case probably sent a message loud and clear that we need to hold vets accountable for their actions,” owner/trainer Carlo Vaccarezza told TDN via phone Tuesday.
“Number one, [Baker] put my filly at risk to get an aneurism or a heart attack,” Vaccarezza said. “Number two, he put the other horses at risk if she broke down. Number three, he put my jockey Joel Rosario at risk. Number four, he put all the other jockeys at risk.
“And number five, not only that, he defrauded the public because they bet over $5 million on that race, and Dr. Baker was the only person who knew that that filly was sick. The public didn't know she was sick. They didn't know she had no shot in the race,” Vaccarezza said.
Asked to comment on behalf of her client, Baker's attorney, Lisa Brown, told TDN via email that, “We believe the case was incorrectly decided and are reviewing all options for further action.”
James Morgan, the lawyer for the Vaccarezzas, told TDN via email that the rapid verdict (after just 2 1/4 hours of jury deliberation) for the full amount of damages requested is a “confirmation as to how the real world will insist on 'accountability.'
“Some battles need to be fought,” Morgan continued. “Of all the battles in and around the horse industry, this was the most satisfying…. It is a victory for those who cherish shining the light on the truth and a defeat for those who choose to harm others by keeping them in the dark by hiding important information.”
Morgan noted that the current controversies surrounding trainer Bob Baffert weren't allowed to be communicated to jurors as they pondered the fate of the veterinarian who for decades has been closely associated with the immensely successful but recently equine-drug troubled trainer.
“The jury received no information about the connection between Dr. Baker and Bob Baffert, Medina Spirit, the 73 pages of accusations filed by the Attorney General for the California Veterinary Medical Board, or the issues pertaining to Dr. [Jeff] Blea,” Morgan wrote. “All the jury heard was the facts of this case.”
Those facts, as alleged in the suit first filed in 2015 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, date to Oct. 31, 2014, the day before Little Alexis was scheduled to start in the Breeders' Cup. The 3-year-old filly had an elevated temperature and Vaccarezza noticed a bump on her left jugular vein.
Baker agreed to treat Little Alexis, and advised the groom to apply hot and cold packs for the bump, Morgan told TDN. Vaccarezza said Baker took a blood sample but did not actually tell him any tests were being done.
Morgan said it would be nearly two years–long after the alleged miscommunication occurred and well after the initial lawsuit was filed–before either he or Vaccarezza learned that Baker had actually gotten test results back the same day they were taken but still didn't mention them to Vaccarezza.
“Instead, on Nov. 1, the morning of the race, Mr. Vaccarezza asked Dr. Baker if Little Alexis would be good to run and reminded him that she would fly out the next morning to be sold at auction in Kentucky,” Morgan explained. “Dr. Baker responded that the filly is good to run. At no point did Dr. Baker tell Mr. Vaccarezza about the complete blood count (CBC) or the serum amyloid A (SAA) test results.”
Morgan argued in court that the CBC was “high and abnormal.” The SAA Value (which measures a protein synthesized by the liver that increases dramatically with inflammation) was an alarming 2,534, far outside a healthy horse's normal range of 0 to 15.
“By concealing the test results, attention was deflected away from the jugular vein issue,” Morgan wrote.
Experts who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs stated that they had never seen an SAA level that high.
“The horse had an inflammatory process going on and the standard of care would have been to advise the owner of the results and scratch the horse,” Morgan wrote.
After Little Alexis beat only one horse in the Filly & Mare Sprint, her temperature spiked again and the jugular bump grew much larger.
“When she came back from the race, she had a 104.7 fever. It's amazing she didn't drop dead,” Vaccarezza said.
With that high a fever, the filly could not get a health certificate to fly out the next morning to sell as hip number 150 at the Fasig-Tipton sale.
The Vaccarezzas gave Little Alexis a five-month break and she returned to racing in April at Gulfstream Park. She ran second, fourth and second in non-graded stakes, then won her final start, the Barely Even H., June 20, 2015.
“The jugular issue would get larger whenever she was asked to go at full speed,” Morgan explained.
Little Alexis sold to WinStar Farm at the Fasig-Tipton mixed sale in November 2015 for $440,000.
Morgan wrote that the exact amount of money coming to the Vaccarezzas via the court judgment will be finalized after the parties “haggle over” the awarding of costs associated with the verdict.
“It was impressive to me how this jury of 12 individuals, none of which had ever seen a horse race, went about their assigned tasks,” Morgan wrote. “Juries typically protect and preserve issues that resonate with them as pertinent to public health and safety. The universal safety standard applicable in our case was that health care professionals must disclose all abnormal test results.
“The unknown back story is that originally this case was based solely on the left jugular vein injury,” Morgan explained. “We were over a year and a half into the case before we obtained a copy of those test results through discovery. The case then changed, and focus was on the nondisclosure of the abnormal CBC and the humongous 2,534 SAA.
“”The negligence claim focused on Dr. Baker's choice to hide the adverse test results from Carlo,” Morgan wrote. “Those results had been concealed. That is negligence. The horse would have been scratched and neither harm to the horse nor damages to the Vaccarezzas would have occurred if the results had been disclosed.”
Morgan also offered a prediction on the defendants' next move.
“In what others have referred to as a 'well-worn playbook,' the predicable next play is to undermine the jurors' verdict, seek immunity from accountability, and to brazenly proclaim vindication will be theirs on appeal,” Morgan wrote.
“Needlessly risking the health and safety of any horse by keeping adverse test results hidden is not the message the public needs to hear…again,” Morgan wrote. “Acknowledging responsibility and accepting the consequences is better for the industry and public perceptions after an avoidable loss occurs.”
Vaccarezza put it this way: “We needed to win [the case] because we need to clear the sport. There's so much pollution and we have to get to the bottom of this. This is a phenomenal, phenomenal sport and we're given bad press every single day. My solution: If a trainer gets 30 days [suspended], the owner should get 30 days, and the vet should get 30 days. You put those rules in place and I guarantee you that people will stop these shenanigans.”