Gulfstream A Winter Wonderland For Vitali
By Ed Gray
A young Marcus Vitali first ventured to Gulfstream Park in 1982 to launch his training career, only to return to his New England home without as much as saddling a horse for a single race.
“I bought a horse to run at Gulfstream, but he got sick, and I never got to run a horse,” recalled the native Rhode Islander, who rode very briefly at the defunct and notorious New England fair circuit as a teenager without earning a trip to the winner’s circle.
After his aborted foray into South Florida racing, Vitali has pretty much been a mainstay in New England, where he saddled his first horse at Rockingham Park and his first winner at Marshfield Fair. Having established himself as a prominent trainer at Suffolk Downs over the years, Vitali was encouraged by some of his owners to give Gulfstream another try in 2010 – which produced considerably better results than his first attempt.
With the support of New England clients Langdon Wilby, Mary Beth Reis, Richard Heshing, and Paul Buckley – all of whom have winter homes in Florida – Vitali, who had spend his first winter outside of New England at Penn National in 2009, finished the Gulfstream meeting with nine winners from 36 starters and a 25-percent win rate. After enjoying another successful meeting at Suffolk Downs last year, he has returned to Gulfstream, where he is a serious threat to crack the Top 10 by the end of the meeting on April 24 with12 victories-and-counting and a 20-percent winning percentage.
“I love it. The Pletchers and the Motts, I absolutely enjoy competing with the top trainers in the country. It’s very fulfilling,” said Vitali, whose 18-horse stable is based at Calder Race Course. “They’re working with iron; I’m working with wood. I’m just banging away.”
Vitali, whose stable is stocked primarily with claiming horses, takes pride in his New England brand of horsemanship and the success he’s achieved with the castoffs of other trainers.
“When horses don’t do well in other places, they end up in New England. Myself and the John Rigattieris of the world – we take those kind of horses and focus on turning them back to what they were,” said Vitali, referring to his fellow New England trainer who has made his mark in Maryland during Suffolk’s offseason. “The other guys just don’t have time to concentrate on them.”
The 50-year-old trainer was smart enough, though, to learn as much as he could about Florida racing from the best.
“When I got to Calder, I asked, ‘Who is the best trainer?’ I was told, ‘Bill White.’ Then, I asked ‘Who’s his blacksmith? What’s he use for feed? Who’s his vet?’ I didn’t know anything about Florida,” Vitali said. “Like my father always told me, ‘It’s just as easy to follow the leader and follow a loser, so follow the leader, baby.’”
Vitali, a “hands-on trainer,” credits his stable’s success at Gulfstream to a strong team that includes assistant Jennifer Young and a loyal group of New England owners, which includes Chris Carney his year. As enjoyable as spending the winter in Florida has been, Vitali looks forward to heading north for Suffolk Downs’ 2011 meeting with 19 horses.
“It’s home. My mother and my son are there,” said Vitali, whose mother Jean still runs a 200-unit mobile home park that abuts the former Narragansett Park property. “I’ll leave six horses at Calder, but I’ll be spending 90 percent of my time in Boston.”
Vitali, who brought jockey Orlando Bocachica from Suffolk Downs to Gulfstream this winter, has encouraged him to remain in South Florida to ride at Calder after enjoying a most productive winter.
“I talked him into coming down with me. I told him to take a shot at it, that I had a good year before and I have a better client base this year. I said, ‘Let’s go.” He said, ‘You’re crazy. I can’t ride with those guys.’ I said, ‘You can ride with them. We’ll need a middle-tier guy, and you’ll be that guy.’ Things took off for both of us,” said Vitali, who bought a house near Gulfstream for many winters to come.