Stronach Tracks Address ‘Program Trainers’: Blood-Horse 9/23/16

By: Doug McCoy

Believing suspended trainer Marcus Vitali may have been working with another trainer to effectively enter horses during his suspension, The Stronach Group announced this week that no entries would be taken for horses trained by Vitali.

On Sept. 22, Sal Sinatra, general manager of the The Stronach Group’s Maryland Jockey Club tracks confirmed the policy.

“At this time no entries will be taken for any horses trained by Marcus Vitali at any Stronach Group track and no application by Vitali for stalls will be considered.” Sinatra said. “This (ban on entries) will be for the foreseeable future. In addition we (The Stronach Group) are exploring ways to take a more proactive stance regarding ‘program trainers.’ ”

Concerns about Vitali working with trainer Allan Hunter to allegedly conduct training through Hunter’s name during Vitali’s suspension were first raised by The Paulick Report. Regulators and tracks are aware of the problem of suspended trainers effectively continuing to train horses through an assistant or other trainer who enters the horses. Sinatra said for long suspensions, the practice is not acceptable.

“We understand that a trainer who receives a short suspension, like 15 days, would normally transfer his horses to his assistant and—in this day and age of cell phones and the like—it’s unrealistic to think that there would be no communication regarding the management of a stable in this situation,” Sinatra said. “However if a trainer is given a more severe suspension such as 90 or 120 days, then those involved with that trainer such as his owners should be prepared to assess how their horses will be affected during this period and consider moving those horses to another independent trainer who is not associated with the suspended trainer.

“We are continuing to examine this particular subject because it can affect a lot of people and while we want to be fair, we also are committed to protecting the integrity of the sport at our tracks.”

Sinatra added that entries from Hunter also would be denied until it could be determined what horses he’d trained all along and which horses may be linked to Vitali.

Vitali, whose suspension is scheduled to end Oct. 29, had no comment regarding The Stronach Group’s stance when contacted Sept. 22 but said he planned on having 20-30 horses in his stable when he returns, admitting that at this point he was just “taking things one day at a time.”

“Our plans for the future are still uncertain, and I’m not ready to say for certain where we’ll be racing, but I’ve been in the business since I was a kid, it’s all I know and we’ve gotten through tough periods before and we’ll get through this one,” said the trainer who won the 2014 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (gr. IT) with Lochte.

Vitali has been inactive since earlier this year when he relinquished his Florida license and moved his string to Maryland in the spring. Believing Vitali’s decision to surrender his license could be a ploy to avoid sanctions in Florida, The Stronach Group denied his entries in Maryland. When his entries were refused by several tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region, he returned to Florida and his lawyers began negotiations with state officials.

In September an agreement was hammered out between Florida and Vitali’s representatives wherein the trainer would serve a 120-day suspension beginning July 1 and expiring Oct. 29, as well as a fine of $7,000. Vitali said he’s being unfairly singled out. He said a “multitude” of other trainers also had positives for therapeutic overages as the state moved to the standards of the National Uniform Medication Program for controlled therapeutic substances last year.

“Most of the violations involved in this whole thing involved small overages for level four medications. These are the equine equivalent of ibuprofen,” Vitali said. “I’ve done nothing unethical or unlawful. I’m willing to accept my punishment and move on. It was a big misunderstanding. Why the headlines are all about me I don’t understand. I’m just a guy trying to make a living.”

Vitali is accurate that many other trainers also had positives for overages of medications on the list of controlled therapeutics. He and other trainers said changes in testing and medication rules were not communicated well to horsemen.

Florida’s licensing web site, myfloridalicense.com, reports other high-profile trainers also failed drug tests and those cases are in various states of being resolved. Failed tests among high-profile trainers include Todd Pletcher, who had four positives in February and March, one class III and three class IV; Kathleen O’Connell, who had a Class III and a Class IV positive in February; and Marty Wolfson, who since Feb. 3 has had 11 Class IV positives. A review of the top 50 trainers at the Gulfstream Park “championship” winter meeting shows 21 had at least one similar positive.

Vitali was sanctioned for seven positives, five in October and November last year and two this year. According to myfloridalicense.com, Vitali had 10 positives in 2015—all Class III or Class IV, and three this year—all Class IV.

Vitali, who has been training since 1989, had his most productive seasons in 2014 and 2015. In 2014 Vitali won 77 races and the stable amassed earnings of $2.16 million in purses while in 2015 Vitali runners won 76 races, earning $2.56 million.