The Week in Review: Vitali Starting a Horse at Saratoga Is Not OK

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Marcus Vitali | Coglianese

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The system, whatever that has come to mean, failed badly last week when Marcus Vitali, one of the sport's most controversial trainers, was allowed to start a horse at Saratoga. Then again, should anyone have been surprised? This was just the latest example of this being a sport that is so dysfunctional, its regulatory systems so weak, that it is completely unable to police itself.

Help is on its way. Some day, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) will be implemented and a central body led by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) will begin the process of herding the cats to replace the current system with one that actually works. In the meantime, Marcus Vitali, despite dozens upon dozens of violations, is free to compete at the most important, most high-profile meet in the sport. That's an embarrassment.

In a story last week in the TDN covering Vitali's appearance at Saratoga, T.D. Thornton put together what amounts to a rap sheet detailing all of Vitali's offenses. Where to start?

There are 84 docket entries under his name in The Jockey Club's online rulings database, many of them for medication violations. Between 2011 and the start of 2016, Vitali was hit with 23 medication violations in Florida alone.

Thornton writes that he was also investigated over a complaint of animal cruelty.

He voluntarily relinquished his Florida license, the strategy appearing to be that he could not be fined or suspended if he didn't have a license. He later negotiated a deal with Florida regulators in which he accepted a 120-day suspension.

That didn't mean that he stayed out of trouble. In 2016 and while under suspension, Vitali was banned at Gulfstream by The Stronach Group, which alleged that he was running horses under another trainer's name. There was another incident at Delaware Park in July of 2019, when, during an inspection of the dorm room of a Vitali employee, Vitali allegedly ran into the room, grabbed a package out of a refrigerator and ran off with it, the security guard giving chase. He was involved in another scandal last year when the Maryland Jockey Club alleged that he was again running horses under another trainer's name.

For some tracks and racing commissions, enough was finally enough. Vitali could not find a racing commission that would give him a license or a track to look the other way. He disappeared after running a horse on July 21, 2019 at Gulfstream. Had this feckless sport finally gotten rid of someone for good whose record of infractions should have been more than enough for lifetime banishment? Of course not.

One thing Vitali has always been good at is finding the weakest link in the system. There has always been a track willing to accept his entries and a racing commission either so clueless or so impotent that it will issue him a license. Late last year, he found just such a commission in Arizona, where he was granted a license. A dereliction of if its duties to protect the integrity of the sport, the Arizona commission pumped new life into Vitali's career.

Turf Paradise looked the other way and opened its doors to him. After 17 months away from the sport, he started a horse on Jan, 4, 2021 at Turf Paradise. Since, he has also raced in Pennsylvania at Presque Isle Downs and in Texas at Lone Star Park. With Vitali having been granted a license in Arizona, the options became limited when it comes to other racing commissions banning him. But there doesn't appear to be any reason why the privately-owned track could not have banned him on their own.

Running at Turf Paradise, Lone Star Park and Presque Isle Downs is one thing. Saratoga is another.

Vitali ran a horse named Red Venus (Candy Ride {Arg}), who finished a non-threatening seventh in an optional claimer last Thursday at Saratoga. Once the entry was made, the finger-pointing began, as many were outraged that Vitali was permitted to set foot on such hallowed ground. Who was at fault? That gets complicated.

Vitali had secured a valid license from the New York Gaming Commission, but that didn't mean that NYRA couldn't have refused to accept the entry. That's essentially the course NYRA took when, with the GI Belmont S. coming up, it suspended Bob Baffert after Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone after crossing the wire first in the GI Kentucky Derby. Think what you want of Baffert, but his history of violations is far less egregious than Vitali's. Why the double standard? When Thornton reached out to NYRA for an explanation as to why Baffert had been banned and Vitali was not, NYRA had little to say.

However, it's not hard to understand NYRA's logic. The racing organization was only a few days removed from losing a round in court when a federal judge ruled that it violated Baffert's due process rights when suspending him without a hearing. With that precedent having been set, it's clear to see why they were hesitant to ban Vitali.

That doesn't mean that NYRA should roll over and let Vitali race in New York whenever he wants. Follow the lead set by the judge in the Baffert matter, give Vitali a hearing, and then, if the evidence suggests it is not in NYRA's best interests to let him race, then ban him.

In the meantime, HISA is in a holding pattern. The act is supposed to go into effect and USADA is supposed to take over the role of drug tester and regulator in less than a year, on July 1, 2022. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen because of the lawsuits filed by the National HBPA and others contesting its constitutionality. So far as the bigger picture goes, those lawsuits figure to go nowhere but, at the same time, they will no doubt gum up the works and keep HISA from becoming a reality for some time to come, maybe even for years.

Were HISA here and had USADA already been put in charge, it's unimaginable that Vitali could have kept getting away with what he has been getting away with. But he had two in Monday at Presque Isle and will start another one there Tuesday and may, who knows, show up for an encore performance at Saratoga. It's come to the point where this is all a joke; a very sad joke.

Montalvo Did Not Deserve Days

When the Monmouth Park-based jockeys complained that a whip ban would put their safety in jeopardy, the counter-argument was that their complaints were unfounded because they could in fact use the whip on occasions when safety was a factor. It's time to rethink that.

Jockey Carlos Montalvo used his whip in a July 11 race aboard a horse named M I Six (Mission Impazible), who was clearly getting out on the turn. He obviously felt that he needed to use the whip to get his mount under control and in no way was he using it to encourage the horse to run faster. While it's debatable as to how much danger Montalvo was actually in, he deserved the benefit of the doubt. He felt he was in a precarious situation, one that could be corrected with help from the whip. He did not use the whip to try to win the race. If that's not a situation where use of the whip was justified because of safety concerns, what is? Nonetheless, the stewards suspended him for five days. He has appealed.

Why did the stewards suspend him? No one knows. The Kremlin-like New Jersey Racing Commission does not permit the stewards to speak to the media and New Jersey Racing Commission Executive Director Judith Nasson might as well be in the witness protection program. That's how inaccessible she is.

The bottom line is that how can jockeys, after the Montalvo decision, possibly expect that they will be permitted to use the whip in actual situations where they are concerned about their safety and not be suspended? They can't, and that's a problem.

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