Vitali Case Gives Congressional Horse Caucus Real-Life Example Of Broken System

by | 04.29.2016 | 12:30am

It's time for the Congressional Horse Caucus members to go on a field trip. May I suggest they take a break today from their hard work at the U.S. Capitol and make the short drive up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to spend an afternoon at Laurel Park in Maryland? They can see first-hand how badly the current structure for regulating medication policies in horse racing is broken.

Members of the Horse Caucus heard on Thursday the same old arguments about why federal legislation to create an independent, non-governmental organization to establish and enforce national medication rules is a good thing – or not, depending on who was testifying. If you want to read about who spoke and what they said, go herehere, here or here. You've probably heard it all before, so I'm not going to regurgitate.

Instead, let me tell you a story about Marcus J. Vitali. He was the third-leading trainer at one of American racing's premier meetings – the Gulfstream Park championship season – this past winter in South Florida.

Vitali, according to MyFloridaLicense.com, has been charged with 23 medication violations since 2011, including nine in 2015 and two so far in 2016.

Vitali is saddling a horse named Hudson Miracle in Laurel Park's fifth race on Friday. He's got another horse in on Saturday and four more at Laurel on Sunday.

How can this be?

Isn't Maryland one of the states that adopted the national uniform medication program? That's the voluntary initiative that the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association say makes federal legislation – in the form of the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015 (H.R. 3084, also known as the Barr-Tonko Bill) – unnecessary. The NUMP, as this acronym-crazed industry likes to call it, is designed to solve the problems created by the patchwork quilt regulatory system that has 32 sets of rules in 32 racing states. The current system was designed long before interstate simulcasting, which now accounts for more than 80 percent of wagering in the United States.

Before he moved his operation to Maryland, Vitali was facing possible consequences in Florida because of the number of alleged medication violations in horses he trained.

Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation and its Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering have the authority to suspend the occupational license of a trainer. Apparently it can't, however, suspend someone who isn't licensed.

Vitali voluntarily relinquished his Florida license before Florida regulators could sanction him for seven alleged medication violations from October 2015 through January 2016. The Maryland Racing Commission has no reason to take action against him or deny him a license because his license has not been suspended in Florida

Trainer Marcus Vitali relinquished his trainer's license in Florida and moved to Maryland

Trainer Marcus Vitali voluntarily relinquished his trainer's license in Florida and moved his stable to Maryland

An April 12 order dismissing the charges in Florida against Vitali reads: “Although the factual allegations contained in the Administrative Complaints, if true, present violations of Section 550.2415, Fla Stat., the Division is unable to prosecute Respondent because he is no longer licensed and the above style cases should therefore be DISMISSED. However, an alert will be placed on Respondent's file and if he is ever to re-apply for licensure in this state the above styled cases shall be re-opened and he shall be held responsible for the allegations contained in these administrative complaints.”

In other words, as long as Vitali doesn't apply for a license in Florida, none of the pending medication charges against him in 2015 and '16 are on his record in any other state. And if he happens to pick up a positive test in Maryland or wherever else he runs horses, it might be treated as a first offense in that jurisdiction.

I don't blame Vitali or his lawyer, Daniel Russell. They are just taking advantage of a deeply flawed system. Russell, with the powerful Jones Walker law firm in Tallahassee, is a former general counsel for Gulfstream Park. His associate, Marc Dunbar, a partner in Jones Walker, currently works for Gulfstream and previously helped convince Florida regulators that barrel races are a legitimate form of pari-mutuel horse racing. Dunbar and his partners in the Gretna “racetrack” are hoping to cash in with the pari-mutuel license they acquired by opening a casino. They know the loopholes in Florida's gambling laws as well as anyone.

I said I wasn't going to regurgitate anything said at Thursday's Congressional Horse Caucus hearing, but this comment by Eric Hamelback, the CEO of the National HBPA, sticks in my craw – especially in light of the Vitali situation. “As this caucus is aware,” Hamelback told lawmakers, “Thoroughbred racing and our industry is one of the most highly regulated industries and sports in the world. The regulation of horse racing is in place at a much more comprehensive level than we see in any other sport today.”

Except in Florida (where, incidentally, Vitali was a member of the HBPA's board of directors until yesterday) … and Maryland … and who knows where else.

A national regulatory structure is desperately needed. The current system is broken. Anyone who says otherwise is delusional.

Correction: There have been 23 medication violation charges against Marcus Vitali since 2011, not 24 as originally reported. There are 32 states with Thoroughbred racing currently, not 38 as originally reported.

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