‘The Paper Trainer Game’: Potts Barred From Entry Box After Officials Determine He Program Trained For Vitali

It all comes down to paperwork.

The Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) told the Paulick Report this week that it has given trainer Wayne Potts one week to vacate his barn at Laurel Park, where he keeps 30 horses, after track officials discovered Potts was program training for embattled colleague Marcus Vitali.

Further, according to MJC president and general manager Sal Sinatra, Potts’s name is on a list at Charles Town, Parx, and Delaware Park and he will not be permitted to run horses at those facilities, either.

Beginning in late July, a group of horses with former Vitali clients Crossed Sabres Farm, Frank Catapano, and Gary and Mary Beth Reis began putting in workouts at Rising Sun Training Center in New Egypt, N.J. All but one of those horses had formerly started under the name of Potts or of Gulfstream Park-based Monica McGoey, who some fellow horsemen suspect has been paper training for Vitali after inheriting a number of horses from his clients.

Vitali has made headlines many times over the years, first for numerous therapeutic medication violations, then for avoiding sanctions for positive post-race drug tests by turning in his license in Florida. In 2016, reporting by the Paulick Report revealed Vitali was training horses at Gulfstream Park under the name of Allan Hunter; Vitali and Hunter were subsequently barred from the entry box there and at Tampa Bay Downs. Vitali reapplied for a trainer’s license in Florida, where state officials credited him with time served for his medication overages. Last year, his license was suspended for one year when he interfered with a search conducted by Delaware Park security of his employee’s dorm, bursting into the room and absconding with an object which was never recovered. Vitali claimed the object was a container of marijuana. His employee at the time said it was an unlabeled vial containing a clear liquid of some type which Vitali asked her to keep in her refrigerator.

Since then, Vitali has completed his suspension. Sources say he has been unable to get stabling at a racetrack.

“We all know about Marcus,” said Sinatra. “It’s clear and obvious.”

Sinatra said the MJC became aware of the association between Vitali and Potts when health certificates for horses entered under Potts’ name from Rising Sun were turned into the racing office. It was clear the documents had been altered.

“The health certificate was made out by the veterinarian for Vitali, and [somebody] used Wite-Out and put W Potts on top of Vitali,” he said. “You could hold it up to the light and tell what happened. We called the vet clinic to get the original. They chirped like canaries.”

Rising Sun, which was purchased earlier this year by Baudin Canka, is one of many training centers that turns in official timed workouts to Equibase, which then become part of the horse’s past performance record. That doesn’t mean that whoever’s timing those workouts necessarily has anyone watching over their shoulder, verifying their status with the state or local racetracks.

“To be approved to have workouts entered into our system, the training center needs to be approved by the relevant governing body (racing commission),” said Rhonda Norby, director of marketing and communications at Equibase. “In states without a specific authority, we rely on at least one local racetrack to provide guidance. If the local racetrack will accept workouts from that facility we will allow them to be entered into our system.

“Once approved, we also rely on local authority or racetrack to inform us that workouts from the training center are no longer valid.”

The Maryland Jockey Club’s investigation of Potts indicated that Vitali probably didn’t need to coach him much on how paper training works.

“While we were investigating, Hubert Gaffney’s name came up on some horses (at tracks where Potts is not allowed to participate),” said Sinatra. “Potts is playing this paper trainer game.

“When I bring this stuff to the stewards, they say, ‘We have no jurisdiction on this.’”

Navarro horses surface in father-in-law’s newly-formed stable
When news broke in early March of the federal indictments of trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro among more than two dozen others in connection with an alleged racehorse doping scheme, action from racing commissions and racetracks was swift. Horses from indicted trainers’ barns were scratched by racing offices and multiple commissions summarily suspended defendants with licenses in their jurisdiction.

Trainer Jorge Navarro

For a brief time it seemed that those accused of criminal activity would be shut out of racing at least until more information came to light in their federal cases.

The world has changed in many ways since early March, and one of them is that Jorge Navarro, one of the more controversial of the defendants, may once again have a connection to horses on the racetrack.

Despite conditions of bail that restrict his access to racehorses, Navarro may still have a hand in the operation of a racing stable in Florida.

Gulfstream Park West (formerly Calder Race Course) is the base for Tomahawk Racing Stables, a new ownership entity that was registered with Florida’s Division of Corporations on April 23 and licensed with the Florida Division of Business and Professional Regulation on May 1 of this year. On its state registration, Tomahawk’s registered agent is attorney Bradford Beilly, who has represented Navarro, and its manager is listed as James Edward Harries, who is Navarro’s father-in-law and is a former trainer who hasn’t started a horse since 2009.

So far, Tomahawk Racing’s runners consist of:

Romario, a 3-year-old colt who Navarro saddled on Feb. 7 for Flying P Stable and whose next start was July 26 for Mark Passley and Tomahawk

Miahsolomiah, a 4-year-old filly who on Feb. 15 made a start for Navarro under his JN Racing banner and whose next race was July 26 for Passley and Tomahawk

Iconic, a 6-year-old gelding who Navarro claimed March 6 (immediately prior to his arrest) for his JN Racing Stable and who won a claiming race July 26 for Passley and Tomahawk

Suz, a 5-year-old mare who was claimed from Navarro Feb. 13 by trainer Domenick Schettino for owner and Navarro client Flying P Stable. Suz ran for Schettino for two starts, and on May 30 turned up in the entries for Tomahawk and trainer Marcial Navarro (brother to Jorge)

Cat’s J N J, a 3-year-old filly who broke her maiden March 4 for Navarro as owner and trainer and was later entered by Passley in a claimer July 31 for Tomahawk

Luckytobeinamerica, a 4-year-old gelding who was claimed on Dec. 26, 2019, by Schettino for Flying P, put in four starts, and on May 24 showed up in the entries for Tomahawk and Marcial Navarro

Five of Hearts, a 3-year-old gelding who on Jan. 31 ran for Jorge Navarro and his JN Racing, and in his next appearance on the entries on Aug. 6, was trained by Passley for Tomahawk.

On June 30, Jorge Navarro and his wife purchased a home in Ocala within a short drive of several of the area’s training centers, including Nelson Jones Training Center. Nelson Jones was the base for Northwest Stud general manager Alfredo Lichoa, who was indicted for money laundering on the same day Navarro and others were indicted for drug adulteration and misbranding. According to sources, Navarro could shift his stable to an Ocala training center and ship horses into Florida racetracks on race day to run under the name of a licensed trainer. Nelson Jones is one of many Ocala training centers not affiliated with racetrack ownership that submits timed workouts to Equibase to become part of a horse’s official past performance record.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation indicated that the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering does not certify training facilities, only pari-mutuel facilities – meaning the state has no enforcement against what licensees or non-licensees do at private training centers.

According to the conditions of the bail agreement Navarro and his co-defendants have with the federal court, he is not permitted to have any contact with racehorses without the presence of the third-party owner of the premises where the horses are stabled. Churchill Downs, Inc., which owns Gulfstream Park West and leases it to The Stronach Group, did not return a request for comment on whether Navarro had been at Gulfstream Park West and whether he had been supervised there by a CDI representative.

Gulfstream Park officials say they have overseen transfers of all the horses in Navarro’s barn to other trainers – and other ownership. Bill Badgett, executive director of Florida Racing Operations for the Stronach Group, said Navarro had ownership interests in numerous horses, not just those running for JN Racing, at the time of his arrest. Badgett said Gulfstream Park officials and stewards verified the transfer of horses not just to other trainers, but required proof that Navarro’s ownership had been transferred to others. Navarro is not permitted to own racehorses running at Gulfstream.

“The thing was, like Imaginary Stables, Monster Stables, all those guys, he had 10, 15, 25 percent of those horses so he was actually part owner in probably 75 percent of the horses in his barn,” said Badgett. “Actually we just finished a case with Imaginary Stable, because a lot of people are saying because of what he did to their horses without their knowledge, they didn’t want to pay his bills. So we just finished a deal with Imaginary Stables to get horses transferred over to Elizabeth Dobles, because Imaginary didn’t want to pay him, so they finally took a settlement.“

Tomahawk was one of the last owners of Navarro horses to get the necessary paperwork submitted to Gulfstream Park stewards showing transfer of ownership. Badgett said Tomahawk purchased a number of horses that previously were owned by Navarro, though he didn’t know what the stable paid for them.

“Actually, believe it or not, the guy tried to give them to Marcial Navarro, which we put a stop to immediately,” said Badgett. “He tried to pull a little bit of a fast one on us and then we caught up on it and squashed it.”

In the past two months, Marcial has claimed at least two horses that had previously been trained by Jorge Navarro.

As for rumors Jorge Navarro had been spotted on the property at Gulfstream Park West or that Passley was using Navarro’s tack and webbings on Tomahawk horses, Badgett dismissed those notions.

“We’ve heard Navarro’s at Calder, training horses,” he said. “We have security there every single day. Nobody’s ever seen him. So believe me, it’s just rumors.”

Badgett said that Gulfstream has also investigated Monica McGoey, who took out her trainer’s license in 2018, two years after Vitali and trainer Allan Hunter were told their entries would not be accepted at Gulfstream or Tampa Bay. A Paulick Report article in 2016 revealed that Hunter was using Vitali’s tack and equipment on horses Vitali previously trained and that Vitali was approved as a frequent stable area “visitor” while he was not licensed to train horses.

When Gulfstream Park officials questioned Hunter, Tim Ritvo (then chief operating officer of The Stronach Group’s racing division), said Hunter “did not deny” being a paper trainer for Vitali and said “he was doing the guy a favor.”

Badgett confirmed McGoey inherited a number of Vitali’s former clients and said the racetrack had requested financial records from her to verify she was the one being paid by owners for training and paying vendor expenses for the stable.

Multiple sources told the Paulick Report that owners received bills for training and pony services with Vitali’s name on it, and that they paid him and he distributed a cut to McGoey. Badgett said McGoey’s financial records indicate otherwise.

“She got the raw end of the deal,” said Badgett. “I told her, ‘Listen, it’s more or less your own fault. When you deal with Vitali you unfortunately deserve what you get.’ The guy’s not a good guy. He’s never been a good guy. Crossed Sabres did the wrong thing and so did a couple of the other owners. As soon as Vitali got his license, they took the horses away from her. It didn’t look good for her, but she didn’t do anything wrong.

“She thought she was doing the right thing, picking up some horses when he left and at the time it didn’t look like he was going to come back. I’m on the backside a lot. She’s there every day, seven days a week, 4:30 in the morning, working her rear off trying to make a name for herself and then something like this happens.”

As of midday Wednesday, Badgett anticipated the horses which had left McGoey’s barn for Rising Sun in New Jersey would not be permitted to come back to the entry box at Stronach Group properties in Florida. Badgett looked forward to a phone meeting with his colleagues in Maryland to determine what, if any, restrictions would be placed on owners who had moved horses from Florida to New Jersey to be trained by Vitali.

Amer Abdulaziz, founder and CEO of Phoenix Thoroughbreds

Navarro’s is not the only case of federal investigations raising questions about whether and how a racing licensee is permitted to continue operations. Earlier this week, Racing Post learned France Galop had decided to ban entries from Phoenix Thoroughbreds, making it the first international racing authority to take official action against the group implicated in U.S. federal court in a money laundering scheme.

Phoenix came on the scene as a secretive big spender in 2017, spending $3.95 million for six yearlings at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale that year. Eventually the group’s founder, Amer Abdulaziz, revealed that Phoenix was the world’s first-ever hedge fund for horses, and would be a regulated fund in Luxembourg due to strict oversight there. In September 2018, the Racing Post quoted Abdulaziz saying that Phoenix had spent $55 million on bloodstock purchases.

In late 2019, Abdulaziz was named in the money laundering trial of former attorney Mark Scott in the Southern District of New York. The trial centered on OneCoin, a cryptocurrency company based in Bulgaria which was later revealed to be a multi-billion-dollar pyramid scheme. According to Konstantin Ignatov, co-founder of OneCoin and a cooperating witness for the U.S. Attorney, Abdulaziz was “one of the main launderers” affiliated with OneCoin and that he was skimming from that laundered money to purchase horses. Scott also said at the time of his arrest in 2018 that OneCoin funds were transferred to a Dubai fund named Phoenix Investments, run by someone he referred to as “Amar something.”

Prosecutors allege OneCoin scammed at least $4 billion from victims around the world who thought they were investing in a currency like bitcoin.

Phoenix and Abdulaziz have categorically denied accusations of money laundering. Following reporting by the Racing Post however, Phoenix admitted that its Luxembourg fund had been dissolved and never had any actual investors.

Earlier this month, Phoenix Thoroughbreds and its related Phoenix Ladies Syndicate reportedly were banned from racing in France due to authorities’ resulting concern about the source of money used to purchase seven-figure horses at Thoroughbred auctions around the world.

In England, the British Horseracing Authority has indicated it is leaving investigation of the racing stable up to law enforcement. However, Phoenix announced earlier in August it had voluntarily decided to stop racing horses there. It still has other interests in England. In November 2017, Phoenix purchased a 50 percent stake in the stallion Aclaim and retired runner Advertise in 2019 – both of whom stand stud at the British National Stud.

Phoenix issued a press release Aug. 13 with a reassurance it would continue racing and breeding in Australia, and it is still licensed as an owner in the United States. Phoenix recently added Ken McPeek and Brendan Walsh to its training roster after trainer Bob Baffert asked the stable to remove its horses from his barn when money laundering allegations became public.

When consulted on the license status of Phoenix Thoroughbreds or its founder Amer Abdulaziz Salman, the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) indicated it could not take any action against a group alleged to filter laundered money through its operation.

“The California Horse Racing Board believes that other law enforcement agencies with greater responsibility and resources are aware of this matter,” said CHRB spokesman Mike Marten. “The CHRB would provide assistance if requested by any law enforcement agency, as it always has. The CHRB’s authority is restricted to licensing matters and will review and take appropriate action if any licensee is convicted of a crime.”

Abdulaziz is said to be maintaining residence in the United Arab Emirates, where he cannot be extradited to the United States.

Upon news of the indictments of Navarro and others, many states summarily suspended racing licenses held by the defendants. Marten told the Paulick Report Wednesday that licenses for Navarro, veterinarian Dr. Kristian Rhein and an assistant trainer to Jason Servis had all been suspended as part of a reciprocity agreement with New York.

“We considered filing our own complaints seeking independent suspension, but determined the reciprocal suspensions were sufficient,” said Marten. “The CHRB continues to monitor the federal cases against the aforementioned individuals and would evaluate all relevant information should they apply for licenses to determine their fitness.”

Reciprocal suspensions evidently do not apply to international racing jurisdictions.

The big picture
All three cases raise questions about racing integrity – and uniformity. Licensees in Florida have long expressed frustration at suspected cases of program training there, wondering what the purpose of a license suspension or revocation is if a trainer can play the paper game. A paper trainer also causes problems for horseplayers, who often take into account the connection to high win percentage trainers like Navarro when placing their bets – if they know those connections are involved.

But moreover, the involvement of bad actors as owners or trainers poses a public relations problem, and Badgett knows it.

On Aug. 12, 2020, the state of Florida issued a trainer’s license to Julian Canet, who is Jorge Navarro’s stepfather. Canet, who mentored Navarro at the start of his career, had his license revoked in 2015 after a long history of medication violations and a case in which he was found with a loaded syringe and needle on his person at Penn National and admitted he planned to use it to dose one of his horses pre-race. Canet was denied a license as recently as 2018 in Pennsylvania.

Badgett said he did not anticipate Canet would be given stalls at the facility.

“As of right now we’re not in a position to let him be associated with the TSG tracks,” he said. “Absolutely not. We’ve got to keep the integrity of the game.”

The post ‘The Paper Trainer Game’: Potts Barred From Entry Box After Officials Determine He Program Trained For Vitali appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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