Marcus Vitali: From Terrible Jockey to Great Trainer

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Marcus Vitali (photo via Youtube).

All he had to do was look out his window.

Marcus Vitali grew up across the street from Narragansett Racetrack in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. His father owned horses and would race at the track in Washington County and also at Lincoln Downs. A glimpse at his future would be part of his daily routine, gazing out the window in the morning, into a field, and seeing the horses galloping on the racetrack.

A Sense of Belonging

The backside of the track has been a part of Vitali’s life since he was seven-years-old.

“My dad started taking me to the track to see his horses, of course on the weekends,” said Vitali. “I used to sneak over, walking them in the morning, without permission. I used to do it at seven or eight years old. I would clean the water buckets. I always wanted to ride one.”

A Look into the Future

The opportunity to grow up around horses provided Vitali with ample ways to gain practical experience, which would stand him in good stead as his career progressed. He had show ponies, with the disciplines of barrel racing and pole bending being part of his youth. He also possessed an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age.

“When I was really little, I used to follow the old man in the neighborhood; I had a box camera, I was about 12. I used to go around with the Shetland pony, put kids on him and take their picture,” said Vitali.

Animals have always had a presence in Vitali’s life. When he was 15, he operated a pet store in his yard. However, there was a passion far more powerful that served as the impetus for a career choice that he readily embraced, never for a moment looking back or regretting his decision.

“I was an animal guy from a young age, I really loved the horses and, in my mind at the time, it could’ve been anything, but I knew what I wanted to do,” said Vitali. “Of course, every chance I got, I’d skip school a little bit. I went before school and after school, rode the mini-bike, anything to be at the racetrack.”

A Dream Realized

Vitali would take out his trainer’s license in 1982, but prior to that, he would ply his trade in a variety of roles at the racetrack, initially as a pony boy and eventually as a jockey, riding the fairs at Marshfield, Northampton, Great Barrington and occasionally having a mount at Narragansett and Charles Town.

“I was just terrible; I was probably the only jockey that never won a race,” said Vitali. “The way I feel about it, everybody should win something. I became a foreman, and I went back to my father’s trainer, Eddie Vashey. I was with him until the day he died. He was a great horseman. He told me I was the worst rider in the country.”

No Place Like Home

A fixture in New England for the preponderance of his career, he was a presence at Green Mountain Race Track and Lincoln Downs before becoming a trainer — and prior to their becoming greyhound tracks — and Narragansett, Suffolk Downs and Rockingham. He would only venture to Saratoga, if he thought he had a legitimate chance to win a race, only going for the day.

New England was a great resource for Vitali, allowing him to learn the industry from the ground up, and providing him with the opportunity to become the horseman he is today. The lessons he learned have proven to be invaluable. And the opportunity to be around a number of gifted horsemen provided him with indispensable insight that helped pave the way to a career where he’s enjoyed a great amount of success, having won nearly 900 races.

“We had really good horsemen, Bruce Smith, guys like that,” said Vitali. “These guys were irreplaceable. Tony Cataldi, they worked hard every day. I used to go their barn, and they would be sitting under the horse on a burlap bag, rubbing their legs. The business had changed so rapidly.”

However, while he was growing up, and eventually realizing his dream as a jockey, he had the opportunity to learn from several seasoned riders who provided their perspective on the challenges associated with a sport renowned for its adversity and pitfalls.

“My idol was Ray Pascarelli, the jockey,” said Vitali, “[along with] George Sebol and Phil Ernst, who rode at the fairs — Northampton, Great Barrington and Marshfield. Terry Greco, he was an apprentice, who lived in a trailer. My father owned all of the real estate around the track [Narragansett], the trailer parks, and he lived right across the street from my house.

“Terry Greco was a great little rider [Vitali had a close relationship with him]. His father Harold was a trainer. He was the leading apprentice. I was very close with Leroy Moyers, Pat Day, Jimmy Reed, the coach from New Hampshire, one of the best agents of all-time. He was a very close friend to my family. Warren Snyder lived down the street in Pawtucket.

“Red Pollard? His daughter, still lives 10 blocks from my mom’s house in Rhode Island.”

Romance and Relocation

Although he had been to Gulfstream Park previously, it was when he came to the Hallandale Beach, Florida racetrack with a former girlfriend during a Valentine’s Day weekend that he would fall in love with the area — so much so, that he purchased a house in close proximity to the track. He did the Suffolk-Calder-Gulfstream circuit for several years and shifted his base of operation to south Florida when fortunes changed for the racetrack located in East Boston. He did the Gulfstream to Monmouth circuit, with a small division running at Saratoga for a few years, but now is based year round at Gulfstream, although he has divisions at Delaware Park for the spring and summer of the current year and Saratoga for the summer of 2019.

All Things Horses

Vitali loves everything associated with the sport, including the required attention to detail, long hours at the barn, relentless intensity and, at times, its unforgiving setbacks. However, it’s the inexplicable joy and powerful love affair that comes from being involved with the horses on a daily basis that has enabled him to fulfill his boyhood dream.

Winning at the Sport’s Highest Level

A son of Medaglia d’Oro gave Vitali one of the greatest moments of his career, when Crossed Sabres Farm’s Lochte, a seven-time stakes winner, captured the 2014 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G1).

“I have to thank my boss for that,” said Vitali. “I said to her, ‘Boy, he’s going really, really good.’ She said, ‘Marcus, take a shot.’ I said, ‘I’m going to look like a buffoon.’ She said, ‘Put him in the race.’

An Elite Athlete with an Unflappable Demeanor

However, it was another son of Medaglia d’Oro who would become the first millionaire conditioned by Vitali — a dark bay Virginia-bred named Valid, who won 12 races, and whose added money victories include the Grade 3 Iselin Stakes and Grade 3 Skip Away Stakes.

“Valid was the man, he wanted to win,” said Vitali. “He knew when he won, and he knew when he lost. He wanted to win. He was a very determined racehorse. They’re hard to come by. We can program these horses to win. If you get one programmed to win, you’re OK. Valid didn’t surprise me. I knew he was just developing rapidly into a mature horse. The key with Valid was, because he was so big, to keep him healthy. He lasted a long time. A lot of my horses last a long time, and they run a long time.”

Valid’s relaxed demeanor when not racing, and his intensity while competing, are the attributes everyone would like to have when conditioning an elite athlete.

“He laid down every day at the barn. At the track, a bomb could blow up, the rest of the barn would be screaming and yelling and kicking the walls,” said Vitali. “You’d have to go wake him up. When he was up, he was playful and happy. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He felt good. You had to be careful. He just developed into a good racehorse.”

Good Things Come in Threes

A gray son of Bluegrass Cat won the Mucho Macho Man Stakes and the Parx Derby during his sophomore campaign, while in Vitali’s barn in 2015, providing racing fans with a triumvirate of runners to root for while racing in the Crossed Sabres Farm’s colors — Bluegrass Singer.

“We were at the sale, and my boss said, ‘Look at that horse,’” said Vitali. “I said, ‘He looks good.’ I think we decided 20 [thousand], but I went outside. She bought him for 27. It worked out well. We took him to Monmouth. We had a lot of little babies and he turned out to be a good, little horse.”

Support, Loyalty and a Commitment to Success

Many of Vitali’s owners have been long-term clients, having stayed with the conditioner, who’s produced consistent results, and Crossed Sabres Farm’s Carolyn “Molly” Vogel is among those who have their horses with the South Florida-based conditioner.

“They don’t come any better,” said Vitali, about Vogel. “She likes to be involved. She likes to know what’s going on, has a great understanding of the game and takes the good with the bad. We’ve never had any problems; very close with the family. They’re like family to me now. I’ve been with them for a lot of years. I’m grateful.

“Molly gives other trainers a chance here and there,” said Vitali. “A lot of times we discuss it, and a lot of times she tells me after. She’s the boss, and the boss is always right. Like I said, I’m very close with the family— Alex, Susie, the whole family. They’re just great. They’re just really good to me.”

John Grossi, Gary Reis, A. Bianco Holdings, Mitchell Goldberg, Frank Catapano and Langdon Wilby are among the other owners who have been with Vitali for years.

“I have great clients, even Mr. Federico, who’s 97, 96, he still calls every day,” said Vitali. “’What are we doing? How are they doin’?’ He’s breeding horses and he’s 96. I said, ’boss, what’s going on?’ He’s keeping me alive.

“I’ve had the same owners I’ve always had,” said Vitali. “You want to know the truth? The guys I don’t have anymore are the ones who passed away. I treat everybody with respect and work my hardest. I’m there every day, and I do the best that I can do with what I have to work with. I’m foremost honest with everybody — and up front. I’ve been fired for telling the truth a lot of times. But a lot of them come back, that’s just the way it goes. They don’t realize I want to win more than them.”

Understanding the Challenges Associated With the Game

Vitali is a claiming trainer and, at times, when he claims a horse, it may not be the quality he thought, but there are spots he’s able to find for those horses, and they’re able to win at a certain level, often being claimed by other trainers.

“The bottom line: this is the Sport of Kings,” said Vitali. “You’re getting into a game that’s definitely high energy and fast moving, so you better pay attention. They’re coming at you at all angles. So, it’s like a fighter, you have to know when to bob and weave, always be honest, do the right thing, treat the horses right, treat the people right, and you’re going to be alright. There are people who have great trainers who win stakes that are a different caliber than the claiming guy. I feel I can do both. I proved it against all odds.”

Overcoming Adversity and Moving Forward

The conditioner was away from the game for nearly a year, something he refers to as a hiccup, serving a 120-day suspension for drug overages and taking additional time away — in total, nearly 11 months — but he didn’t seem to lose a beat, demonstrating his consistency at finding the winner’s circle when he returned to the game he loves.

Persistence and Dedication

However, it’s that consistency, his work ethic and attention to detail that has enabled Vitali to succeed. He’s in the barn in the morning, the afternoon and, sometimes, at night if he can’t sleep. But he attributes much of his success to his hard-working staff.

“I have some good people with me, when I go on the road, I have a good foreman and good assistants,” said Vitali. “I have people that really watch my back. I’m not easy to work for because I take this serious. I don’t [allow] music in the barn. I need to focus. I don’t want to hear music, when I could hear a cough or a kick of the wall or if they’re jumping around.”

A Subculture with a Distinct Flavor

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Marcus Vitali at Gulfstream Park (photo via Youtube).

The opportunity to grow up in New England gave him access to an invaluable resource — a number of outstanding horsemen, who were willing to impart their knowledge with Vitali, recognizing that he possessed an innate quality that would help him succeed: he was willing to learn. His parents and mentor Eddie Vashey provided a strong foundation.

The bonds he forged while evolving as a horseman, have enabled him to progress and grow, forming friendships that have lasted throughout his life.

“I had a lot of favorite guys in New England, even Vinnie Blengs,” said Vitali. “When I was a little kid, he would throw me out of his barn. He’s retired now. I sit with him in the trainers’ lounge.”

It was that deep sense of community and rich tradition that enabled Vitali to navigate the depths of what is an inordinately challenging sport, where having the right connections can provide you with the opportunity to progress.

“My dad was a horse guy, and of course I used to go to the track with Jimmy Reed; I was always at the track,” said Vitali. “I’m friends with Ernie Finnochio, he was a trainer; and his son is a vet now. He gave me a shot as a jockey. Nobody wanted to ride me, but they gave me a shot because they were friends of my family. I remember I rode a horse called Crafty Ben.”

Among the horses that still resonate powerfully with the trainer decades later, include those he used to hot walk, with the first being Mr. Blue Bell. Then there was Hominy, Royal Harbor and Euruch. Vitali would go to the track with his cousin Joe Cantone, who had a horse named Ocala Luck, who the future horseman described as a “cool horse”.

“I just love the track, and I always wanted to travel,” said Vitali. “If the van was going somewhere, I wanted to go. It was a little different than today. I could’ve gotten a hotel, but I used to sleep in a lounge chair in front of the barn if the horse was in the next day. Rockingham was night racing, Friday nights, and we’d sneak a beer here or there, once in a while.”

And although he comes from a family with some means, making things a little easier, Vitali has always had to work hard, finding his own way in a competitive environment.

“If I wanted it, I had to work for it,” said Vitali. “I still breathe the passion. I’m here doing it. I believe it’s what you put into this game. How much you feel it; how much you understand it; it’s all about understanding the horse. If you don’t understand the horse, you can’t train the horse. You got to feel it; you have to look at them. They communicate in so many ways. You need to pay attention. The guys that pay attention, have a passion for it. If you’re feeling it, you’re going to get results. You need support and you need owners. I’m a big believer in that you have to go with the guys who win races. That’s the bottom line.”

Even after his hiatus, Vitali continues to work diligently, working toward a number of objectives, with several milestones within reach.

“It’s going in the right direction, I can’t thank my owners enough,” he said. “It’s been wonderful.”

The conditioner’s 90-year-old mother is her son’s biggest fan.

“She calls me every day, she watches the races, ‘What do you have in?’” Vitali said. “She sends me a text, ‘That jockey stinks. He got left at the gate.’ She’s not the owner. She tells me, ‘Don’t ride him anymore. Who is that?’ I won’t tell her.”

As Vitali’s career progresses, he’s looking for ways to give back to help the next generation achieve their dreams and realize their objectives. His life and professional experience are among the variables that he’d like to pass along.

“There’s a lot to thoroughbred racing, and the ones that can see that, are the ones who will do well,” said Vitali. “There’s a generation behind me coming up. My career’s been pretty much, where I couldn’t win a race, to where I almost got on the top rung. This industry has been pretty good to me. I enjoy what I’m doing.”

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