By: Ray Paulick
Trainer Marcus Vitali, currently serving a 120-day suspension for multiple medication violations in Florida, has been told by officials with The Stronach Group – owners of Gulfstream Park in Florida, Laurel Park and Pimlico in Maryland and Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields in California – that they will not take entries from him in the future and asked Vitali to leave the Gulfstream Park property.
Trainer Allan Hunter, in whose name Vitali’s horses have been running over the last two months, has also been told his entries will not be accepted by Stronach Group tracks. Hunter has been given 10 days to remove all of the horses currently under his care from Gulfstream Park. Hunter has one former Vitali horse entered on Friday’s Gulfstream Park program that will be allowed to run, according to Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group’s racing division.
The action came one day after a Paulick Report article by Natalie Voss examining licensing questions surrounding Vitali, who voluntarily relinquished his Florida occupational license earlier this year to avoid a possible suspension, then moved his stable to Maryland. He returned to Florida later this summer to seek reinstatement of his license. As part of a consent order from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering reinstating his license in September, Vitali was suspended 120 days and fined $7,000. The suspension began retroactive to July 1, when VItali was not licensed.
“We called in Vitali and Hunter and said to Hunter, ‘Are these your horses or are they Marcus’s horses,’” said Ritvo. “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.”
He added that all Stronach Group tracks are going to make a “much more exerted effort” to prevent program trainers taking over a stable when trainers are suspended for a prolonged period.
Vitali was third-leading trainer during Gulfstream Park’s 2015-16 championship meet, winning 25 races from 148 starts. Hunter, who won a total of 11 races from 2011-15, is sixth in the current Gulfstream Park standings, winning 12 of 66 starts, primarily with horses that previously ran under Vitali’s name.
Ritvo also disputed a point in the Paulick Report article on Vitali, based on a state investigative report, that said he told Jay Stone, then the racing manager for Frank Calabrese, not to talk about or delay filing a complaint against Vitali in March 2013 until after that year’s Florida Derby. Stone’s complaint said Vitali ran a filly knowing she had a slab fracture in her knee and that Vitali supplied him X-rays after the race showing the broken leg. Stone had claimed the horse on behalf of Calabrese. She finished 45 lengths back as the 6-5 favorite and never raced again.
“Jay came up to Mike Rogers (Stronach Group racing division president) and me at the party the night before the Florida Derby,” Ritvo said. “Rogers and I were furious at Vitali and told Jay Stone, ‘Send everything to the state.’ No one was ever told to wait until after the Florida Derby. The state didn’t do anything. We should have acted upon it ourselves, but after that we hired Dr. (Robert) O’Neil to look at this kind of issue.”
O’Neil was hired in July 2014 as the company’s Equine Health and Safety Director.