By T. D. Thornton
A Sept. 20 news report in the Paulick Report that The Stronach Group (TSG) has barred under-suspension trainer Marcus Vitali from competing in the future at TSG-owned tracks has allegedly come as a surprise to Vitali himself.
In two separate phone conversations with the TDN Tuesday–the first was interrupted because the embattled veteran trainer had to take an incoming call from his attorney–Vitali said no one from TSG has contacted him or his lawyer about not being allowed to stable or enter horses at TSG tracks. Those venues include Gulfstream Park and Laurel Park, where earlier this year Vitali said he had a combined 25 horses in training.
“I haven't been denied because I haven't applied [for stalls],” Vitali said. “There's no communication because I'm suspended. I'm right now on suspension until Oct. 29. I don't know what's going to transpire between now and the 29th. I didn't hear anything. Maybe they talked to the trainer [Allan Hunter Jr., who has been listed as the trainer of record for the Florida-based horses previously trained by Vitali].”
An investigative piece by the Paulick Report Monday detailed Vitali's voluntary relinquishing of his Florida training license earlier this year to avoid sanctions for multiple medication violations, an aborted attempt to relocate his racing operation to Maryland, and a complaint about alleged animal cruelty involving a claimed Thoroughbred that was closed by Florida authorities because of “insufficient proof.”
According to that article, dating to 2011, Vitali has had 23 equine medication violations in Florida alone. The piece also reported that under the terms of a July 1 “settlement agreement,” Vitali is currently sitting out a 120-day license suspension from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering and has been assessed a $7,000 fine.
The Paulick Report further disclosed that Vitali was a frequent summer visitor to the Gulfstream backstretch while under suspension after having obtained a visitor's pass from track management. According to the article, “he was making daily trips to the backstretch, where horses trained by Allan Hunter worked out in saddle towels bearing Vitali's initials. Vitali was spotted instructing staff, often when Hunter did not appear to be present.”
Tim Ritvo, president of chief operating officer of TSG, did not return a Tuesday voicemail from the TDN requesting comment. But earlier in the day, Ritvo explained to the Paulick Report the reasoning behind TSG's request for Hunter to remove all the former Vitali-trained horses from Gulfstream within 10 days:
“We called in Vitali and Hunter and said to Hunter, 'Are these your horses or are they Marcus's horses?'” Ritvo said. “Allan Hunter was cooperative. He did not deny it [being a program trainer for Vitali], said he was doing the guy a favor and didn't want any trouble. We made it clear we could have done an audit to find out who was paying worker's compensation and who is paying the bills.”
Vitali emphasized several times in his interviews with the TDN that the banishment outlined in the Paulick Report was news to him.
“I don't think they asked [Hunter] to take the horses off the grounds. I think they asked him to disperse them among other trainers,” Vitali said.
With regard to his appearances on the Gulfstream backstretch while under suspension, Vitali said this: “I was going in on a visitor's pass because all the cases [involving his infractions] were closed at that time, and it was permissible. I went for a vacation, and when I came back, Allan told me that they weren't giving any visitors passes, so I didn't ask for one. I don't know how [his loss of visiting privileges] actually came about.”
Vitali said he has not determined how or if he will re-enter training once his suspension ends Oct. 29.
“I haven't crossed that bridge. Maybe I'll take the winter off, I don't know,” Vitali said. “I haven't decided. I'm going to wait it out. I've got avenues to pursue. I've got other businesses. I have an 88-year-old mother. Maybe I'll take a vacation. I haven't had a vacation in ten years. Who knows? Maybe I'll be back at Gulfstream. I don't know. Nobody's said anything to me. I've got to respect TSG if they make decisions come Oct. 29.”
Vitali continued: “Unfortunately, I think this was all a big misunderstanding with the [Florida pari-mutuel] division, and I'm relieved that it's finally resolved, and I feel very comfortable. I feel like a big weight's been lifted off my shoulders.
“If I decide to move forward, I might take a different approach,” Vitali said. “Like I said, I have options. I'm going to do something in the sport. Maybe manage some of my clients' horses as a stable manager. I might regroup and set up shop again. I don't think I'll have any problem picking up clients. I haven't in the past. My record's pretty strong. It speaks for itself.”