Vitali—Aided by Baffert Court Order—Resurfaces at Saratoga

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Marcus Vitali | Adam Coglianese

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When the New York Racing Association (NYRA) barred Hall-of-Fame trainer Bob Baffert back in May over integrity concerns surrounding his five equine drug positives in a one-year span, it was only a matter of time before speculative comparisons began to percolate within the industry along the lines of, “They banned Baffert, but they allow so-and-so to race?”

You could have inserted the name of any controversial or rogue trainer of your choice in that above sentence.

But it didn't take long for the entries at Saratoga Race Course to supply one.

Marcus J. Vitali, who has a long history of equine medication violations among the 84 docket entries listed under his name in The Jockey Club's online rulings database–plus a daunting list of racetrack banishments and licensure denials up and down the East Coast–was allowed to enter Red Venus (Candy Ride {Arg}) in the Spa's fourth race July 22.

The race was a $35,000 NW3L claimer, and Red Venus ran a no-impact last in the field of seven.

It could very well be that NYRA didn't want to take Vitali's entries. But in light of Baffert's ongoing lawsuit against NYRA–the embattled trainer just won an injunction in federal court last week that gives him the right to race in New York while his Fourteenth Amendment due process case plays out–NYRA perhaps believed it didn't have much legal choice other than to accept Vitali's entries.

Martin Panza, the senior vice president of racing operations at NYRA, said he wouldn't comment on Vitali when reached via phone Thursday morning.

Patrick McKenna, NYRA's senior director of communications replied instead. He wrote in an email that “NYRA is absolutely committed to protecting and enhancing the integrity and safety of the sport. In light of the recent federal court decision, NYRA is establishing a due process mechanism that will allow it to take action against individuals whose conduct is contrary to the best interests of Thoroughbred racing.”

By way of explanation, McKenna also emailed a highlighted section of the order written by Judge Carol Bagley Amon of United States District Court (Eastern District of New York) that stated how a legal precedent had previously established that NYRA does have the right to exclude licensees, but “must conform to the requirements of due process” by affording some sort of hearing prior to banning a licensee.

Craig Robertson, Baffert's attorney, told TDN that allowing Vitali to race while attempting to exclude the seven-time GI Kentucky Derby-winning trainer underscores the unfairness of how Baffert has been treated.

“This is just one of many examples demonstrating that NYRA has singled Mr. Baffert out for disparate treatment,” Robertson wrote in an email. “We spelled out numerous other examples in the pleadings we filed with the court. I have never asked for Mr. Baffert to be treated any better than any other trainer. I just don't want him treated any worse.”

Vitali, 60, grew up across the street from now-defunct Narragansett Park in Rhode Island. In the 1970s, he pursued a career as a jockey but soon outgrew the profession. He began training in New England in 1989, and did not incur any medication violations during the first two decades of his training career according to The Jockey Club's online rulings database.

Vitali was, however, fined on numerous occasions for administrative violations such as entering ineligible horses, disobeying racing officials, making invalid claims, issuing checks with insufficient funds, and attempting to get horses on Lasix when they did not medically qualify.

In the mid-2000s, Vitali began training horses for the polarizingly controversial owner Michael Gill. While employing a dizzying array of hired-and-fired trainers, Gill's horses were frequently the subject of equine welfare scrutiny in numerous jurisdictions because of their high catastrophic injury rates.

Gill eventually left the sport. But Vitali continued to branch out in the mid-Atlantic region and later established a training base in Florida, where he became a multiple graded-stakes winning conditioner.

According to The Jockey Club's rulings database, it wasn't until 2008 that Vitali racked up his first medication penalty, in Maryland for a butazolidin violation.

But between 2011 and the start of 2016, Vitali had 23 medication violations on his training record in Florida alone. He was also investigated for a complaint about alleged animal cruelty involving a claimed Thoroughbred. That case was eventually closed by Florida authorities because of “insufficient proof.”

In 2016, Vitali voluntary relinquished his Florida training license in an attempt to avoid further sanctions for multiple medication violations. His legal reasoning was that so long as he didn't hold a license, it couldn't be suspended and he couldn't be fined.

On July 1, 2016,  his legal team negotiated a “settlement agreement” with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering that resulted in a 120-day license suspension and a $7,000 fine.

On Sept. 20, 2016, The Stronach Group (TSG) barred the under-suspension Vitali from competing at TSG-owned tracks after Vitali was spotted at Gulfstream Park instructing staff and sending horses to the track in saddle towels bearing his initials. TSG also kicked out horses allegedly trained by Allan Hunter, who was alleged to be acting as Vitali's “program trainer.” Vitali at the time claimed he had been issued a “guest pass” and was doing nothing wrong.

In November 2016, a Vitali horse was scratched from the opening-day program at Tampa Bay Downs, whose management then denied further entries from Vitali.

Vitali tried to relocate to Parx in Pennsylvania. He was told he was not welcome there, but he appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, which upheld his appeal and granted him a stay on Jan. 23, 2017.

One month later, Vitali attempted to obtain a racing license in West Virginia, but was denied licensure by the West Virginia Racing Commission (WVRC).

“Mr. Vitali has a lengthy record of racing rule violations in other racing jurisdictions, including multiple medication rule violations,” a Feb. 21, 2017, WVRC ruling stated.

That ruling continued: “A Comprehensive Ruling Report from the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) demonstrates that Mr. Vitali has had a total of 55 rulings issued against him in other racing jurisdictions and that he has been assigned 31 Multiple Medication Violation advisory points by ARCI for various medication rule violations in other racing jurisdictions. Mr. Vitali's past record of violations in other racing jurisdictions shows a consistent and callous disregard for the rules of racing.”

On Aug. 8, 2018, Vitali was denied licensure in New York on the grounds that he “failed to comply with licensing requirements.”

Eventually, Vitali was granted a training license and stalls at Delaware Park. In July of 2019, when a member of that track's security team was checking the stable-area dorm of one of Vitali's employees, Vitali allegedly ran into the room, grabbed a bubble-wrapped package out of the refrigerator that appeared to be a vial of clear liquid, and ran off with it while security gave chase.

The package was suspected to be a contraband equine drug. But Vitali allegedly disposed of it before security officials could take possession of it. Vitali later claimed that it was a bag of marijuana.

That act of evasion earned Vitali a one-year suspension and $2,500 fine for interfering with and impeding an investigation.

During that banishment from racing, Vitali attempted to return to his native Rhode Island to open up a legal marijuana cultivation business.

But in February 2020, a local newspaper got wind of his lengthy record of racing violations and wrote up several stories about his checkered past. It is unclear whether or not he was ever granted clearance to open that business. “Vitali shrugs off the violations, which he blames on a regulation-heavy industry,” the Attleboro Sun Chronicle wrote at the time.

In August 2020, trainer Wayne Potts was barred from racing and stabling at Maryland tracks due to accusations from TSG that he was operating as a “program trainer” on the basis that he was receiving horses that had been previously trained by Vitali. Potts denied the allegations, and was subsequently granted stall space in New York. He said those horses were from an owner, Carolyn Vogel, for whom Potts had previously trained.

(Ironically, Vogel is the breeder of Red Venus, the Vitali-trained filly who ran under the ownership of Crossed Sabres Farm at Saratoga on Thursday. Another related coincidence that drew considerable commentary on social media this week is that Potts also saddled a runner in Thursday's fourth race at the Spa.)

Vitali regained his training license in Arizona and resurfaced at Turf Paradise on Jan. 4, 2021. He later started horses at Lone Star Park in Texas and is now based out of Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. He has an 8-for-61 record so far this year.

Just last week, on July 14, Vitali was fined $250 by the Presque Isle Downs stewards for arriving “extremely late” to the paddock with an entrant, necessitating a late scratch.

In various interviews over the past five years, Vitali has repeatedly told TDN that his long history of medication penalties is the result of a “big misunderstanding.” He has also noted that his equine drug history shouldn't be held against him so harshly because it is primarily comprised of lower-classification violations in the ARCI's Class 3 and 4 categories.

TDN phoned Vitali Thursday morning prior to his Saratoga start, which was his first in New York since 2019.

After a reporter introduced himself, Vitali replied, “I can't hear [expletive],” and the conversation was cut off.

When TDN called back several times, there was no answer.

This is similar to what happened when TDN tried to speak to Vitali via phone back in January at Turf Paradise–he claimed a bad connection, then couldn't be reached.

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