Cibelli Case: Two Months and Counting
It's been nearly two months since veterinarian Orlando Paraliticci was banned from the Tampa Bay Downs premises by track management because of an incident that took place at the barn of trainer Jane Cibelli. Paraliticci, known as Dr. O on the backside of the Oldsmar, Fla., racetrack, allegedly was observed injecting a horse's knee on the morning it was scheduled to race – a practice that is strictly prohibited.
But no stewards hearing has been scheduled for Paraliticci, and no action has been initiated against Cibelli despite ultimate insurer rules that hold a trainer responsible for horses in his or her care. Some in the Tampa Bay Downs racing community have become increasingly skeptical about whether any action will ever be taken against the trainer, suggesting Cibelli is getting a free pass from track management and the state's regulatory agency, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
Peter Berube, general manager of the Stella Thayer-owned racetrack, admits to being frustrated over the way the matter has been dragged out but lashes out at any suggestion that the case is being swept under the rug.
It all began on the morning of Jan. 27, when one of the veterinarians hired by Tampa Bay Downs to conduct pre-race soundness inspections walked into Cibelli's barn to look at one of two horses the British-born trainer had entered to race that afternoon. When the vet came to the stall of Raven Train, who was scheduled to compete in the day's second race, a $16,000 claiming event, Paraliticci allegedly was inside the stall, with an assistant and a groom. According to sources, the veterinarian was injecting a knee in the 5-year-old son of Silver Train owned by Hannah Smith's Southwind Stables. A clearly marked sign outside the stall said the horse was entered to race that day.
The veterinarian reported the incident to the stewards, who ordered that the horse be scratched. Track management launched an internal investigation, and on Feb. 3 – one week after the incident – exercised its private property rights and excluded Paraliticci from all racetrack premises, effectively banning him from practicing veterinary medicine at his home track.
A stewards hearing for Paraliticci was set for Feb. 15 but subsequently was postponed and has not been rescheduled. Berube said the hearing was delayed by state regulators that he said have taken over the investigation. Some have suggested an attorney hired by Paraliticci caused the postponement, and others are convinced nothing will happen until after the current meeting ends on May 5.
Paraliticci has not commented on the matter and has failed to return numerous messages left on his cell phone.
Cibelli made one public comment, telling the Tampa Bay Times: “Neither myself nor my assistants were in the barn when this supposedly took place. The story going around is that I'm standing right there when (Paraliticci) is doing whatever he was supposed to be doing. The first thing I knew about (the alleged incident) was when I got a phone call from the stewards.”
Efforts by the Paulick Report to reach Cibelli have failed. But fellow trainers, veterinarians and one former client have painted a picture of Cibelli suggesting that very little takes place in her stable that she doesn't know about.
“Everyone is aware of the micromanaging that goes on in that barn,” said one Tampa Bay Downs horseman who asked not to be named. “That could come back to bite her.”
Another trainer who had been using Paraliticci as his vet scoffed at the notion Dr. O would take it upon himself to inject a horse without a trainer's approval – especially on race day. “He would never go into a barn without permission, especially that barn,” the trainer said.
An owner who previously had a horse with Cibelli but moved it to another barn because of what he called excessive veterinary work said Cibelli “has been through a bunch of vets.” He called one of the veterinarians Cibelli had used to inquire about a horse that allegedly was injected nine times the day before a race and was told: “I just do what she tells me to do.” All of the bills this owner said he received from Paraliticci were initialed “OK” by Cibelli.
Cibelli, the leading trainer at Monmouth Park in 2011 and 2012, got off to a very good start at the beginning of the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, winning 13 of her first 33 starts, a 39% strike rate. Since the Jan. 27 incident, however, her win percentage has fallen to 14% as only six of 44 Cibelli runners have found their way to the winner's circle.
One of those early-season victories was registered by Purple Egg, a 3-year-old son of Lion Heart who won the opening day Inaugural Stakes on Dec. 1. The gelding, who had been considered a local favorite for the Tampa Bay Derby off a perfect 3-for-3 record, is owned by Goodwood Racing, which is managed by Tampa Bay Downs vice president of marketing and publicity Margo Flynn. Flynn and Cibelli also own a house together in nearby Odessa, Fla.
The relationship between Cibelli and Flynn is often cited by Tampa Bay Downs horsemen as the real reason no action has been taken against the trainer. “Anybody but her, they'd be gone,” said one Tampa Bay Downs horse owner.
“That's absurd,” said Berube in response to a question about whether or not Cibelli was getting preferential treatment. “It's an absurd question. In no way would that situation arise at this racetrack.”
Why, then, Berube was asked, did Tampa Bay Downs act so swiftly to ban Paraliticci but do nothing to the trainer responsible for the care of Raven Train?
“There is a house rule and there is a state rule (regarding trainer responsibility),” said Berube. “Our house rules can't trump a state rule. If the Division (of Pari-Mutuel Wagering) were to take no action under the state rules, we do have a house rule that would cover it.”
Berube said his hands were tied once the state's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering took over the investigation.
“They wanted to conduct their own investigation,” he said. Berube said state investigators have been doing recent interviews.
“Our investigations into Paraliticci and Cibelli are both active and ongoing,” said Sandi Poreda, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Business Regulations. “Any necessary hearings will be held once the investigations have been concluded.”
Poreda would not provide further comment on the investigations, other than to say they fell under the responsibility of Leon Biegalski, the director of the DPMW. “He oversees the day-to-day operations of the Division, including investigations.”
“Doesn't this seem like a fairly simple investigation?” Berube was asked by the Paulick Report. “There is a witness, a veterinarian hired by the racetrack to conduct pre-race inspections, who reported something to the stewards that was considered to be illegal. There was a practicing veterinarian allegedly caught in the act of giving a prohibited race-day injection. There was a vet assistant and a groom. And then there is a trainer, who under state rules and Tampa Bay Downs house rules is responsible for the horse. It doesn't seem that complicated.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” Berube said. “Unfortunately that's the way the Division operates. I don't want to speak bad about the Division, but they have their own set of rules they have to live by.”
The rules regulating Florida racing are murky, which is why the racetracks are responsible for overseeing many things that normally would fall under the auspices of a racing commission in most other states. House rules have been established by Florida's racetracks to provide oversight in areas not covered by state regulations.
“This was an opportunity for Tampa Bay Downs management to show that it cared about integrity and the welfare of these horses,” a veterinarian told the Paulick Report. “They blew it.”