Saratoga Springs

Violette built lasting legacy in New York and beyond

Late trainer, long an advocate for a variety of important causes, will be honored with a stakes race named for him at Saratoga on Wednesday
Trainer Rick Violette lets his Kentucky Derby runner Samraat take a roll in the dirt in April, 2014.
Trainer Rick Violette lets his Kentucky Derby runner Samraat take a roll in the dirt in April, 2014.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The rainbow was a nice touch, an artistic flourish both joyful and poignant.

Whitney Day at Saratoga Race Course was disrupted last year by rain and lightning, chaos in the sky causing events on the ground to grind to a standstill, nobody moving, nothing getting done.

This condition rarely ever slipped into Rick Violette’s orbit, though, and, sure enough, they finally loaded the starting gate for the Whitney 44 minutes late, and a few minutes later the trainer and his barn were celebrating by far the biggest victory of a career that began in 1977.

With the traditional Whitney blanket of pink roses over Diversify’s neck and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.’s lap as the horse walked into the winner’s circle, a slice of rainbow — absurdly — appeared on the horizon up the track and past the end of the grandstand.

“Yeeeah … I don’t want to read too much into that,” Violette said, with a familiar twinkle in his eye.

He died 11 weeks later, having fought lung cancer for several years, having missed Diversify’s breakthrough 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup victory while suffering from pancreatitis, but having left so much of himself permanently imprinted on every facet of horse racing, in New York State and well beyond.

The New York Racing Association renamed a stakes race after him, which will be run on Wednesday’s card, a fitting nod to someone who was so deeply involved in his sport both on the track and off.

While the image of that rainbow will remain burned on the memory of anyone who was there on Whitney Day, like all rainbows, it vanished soon enough. But Violette’s vision and benevolent influence on racing, through his work with a variety of lobbying, advocacy and initiatives designed to support the entire spectrum of stakeholders, from horsemen to backstretch workers to the horses themselves, will remain rooted in solid ground even now that he’s gone.

“It was incredible how passionate he was about everything, and he was penalized for it, too [through loss of training business],” said his assistant trainer of 15 years, Melissa Cohen, now working for Jonathan Thomas. “But nothing was ever left undone. The help definitely always had his back. He was very good at training people as well as horses.

“He created a huge platform for that [advocacy], and there’s a lot of people in place who can pick up where he left off. He set a good platform for everybody to keep going on with it.”

“Well, I think you’d run out of battery power if I sat here all morning talking about Rick’s contributions …,” New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association executive director Andy Belfiore said with a smile.

Well, we can try.

Violette, whose Eastern Massachusetts accent stood out among the New Yorks, Kentuckys, Floridas and Californias, was on the NYTHA board for 25 years, serving 10 as president before retiring from that position in 2017, replaced by Joe Appelbaum. 

During his tenure, Violette doggedly petitioned the powers that be to improve backstretch welfare and create scholarships, and pushed for uniform medication policies, one of the many disjointed aspects of racing management.

He also served as co-chair on the board of the Backstretch Employee Service Team, which is dedicated to healthcare and wellness services for the barn workers.

He eventually moved on to the complicated but essential issue of racehorse retirement, helping create programs like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, NYTHA’s Take2 Second Chance Career Thoroughbred Program and TAKE THE LEAD Thoroughbred Retirement Program.

“He’s been part of New York racing for a long time,” trainer Linda Rice said. “I’ve been on the horsemen’s board for 15, 16 years. He was the president, and even prior to that, he was a big part of the board and he implemented a lot of great programs here in New York. For the backstretch workers, for the horsemen … he was a real advocate for horse racing in general in New York. Obviously, we all miss him.”

“Fairly early in his tenure there, the Backstretch Employee Service Team was in some financial difficulty, NYTHA itself was in some financial difficulty and he and the board put everybody on austerity programs and said, ‘OK, we’re getting our finances in shape,’ and now both organizations are thriving,” Belfiore said. “NYTHA would’ve always been here, but B.E.S.T., they were struggling, and now they’re able to provide so many great programs for the backstretch, and that’s a lot due to Rick’s influence in strengthening their financial status.”

“Not only being in awe of all that he did, he was a tremendous thinker, innovator,” said trainer Rick Schosberg, a NYTHA board member. “He set the foundation for a great program, but he started at his endgame. He knew how he wanted it to end, and work his way backwards and set up a good foundation to build the initiative. That’s what he did with the Take2 program.”

Violette was an accomplished rider in the hunter and jumper disciplines as a teenager, not necessarily an unusual background for a thoroughbred trainer.

A degree in political science, of all majors, from UMass Lowell, however, was unusual, and his intellectual capacity served him and the rest of racing well when it came time to devise programs, lobby in Albany or be the face of racing when controversial topics needed to be addressed.

“He was interested in so many different things,” Belfiore said. “A lot of times with people on the racetrack, all we ever talk about is racing and horses. With Rick, your topics of conversation would be all over the map, from the arts and film, music, politics and everything. Also one of the most loyal and staunch people you could ever have in your corner that you could ever, ever ask for.”

It took more than just being an idea man, though, to get these programs moving.

Violette also had an intellectual tenacity that steadfastly stood upon its own reason and the personality to present it in a forceful way.

“Some of us in life, it’s a little bit different, not to get off topic. Married, have kids … he didn’t,” trainer David Donk said. “So he was kind of all-in. Didn’t mind being a bulldog in the line of fire. He was very stuck in his ways. Rick  was very tough, very opinionated, but pretty fair about everything.”

“He would take an arrow, a bullet, a spear for the horsemen and the horses,” Schosberg said. “And his main thing was the health and welfare of the horses and the backstretch workers.

“He always had good, sound reasoning for what he did. It was almost inarguable. If you went in to bargain with him, he won. He won. It wasn’t a compromise. He won. He got you to understand, because he lived it, every facet of the industry.”

Because it was easy to identify Violette as the advocate, the go-to media source, the lobbyist in Albany, it was also easy to forget what a good horseman he was.

Read the Footnotes was a multiple graded-stakes winner who finished seventh in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, and Violette took another fun run at the Derby in 2014 with the New York-bred Samraat, who was fifth, followed by a sixth in the Belmont Stakes. In 2007, he won the Grade I Test at Saratoga with Dream Rush.

Then along came Diversify, co-owned by longtime clients and friends, Ralph Evans and his daughter Lauren.

Also a New York-bred, Diversify put himself on the map by winning the 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup — in Violette’s absence — then put together a three-race winning streak last year that included the Commentator, Suburban and Whitney.

Between his work off the track and the time and attention he had to spend getting and staying healthy, Violette wasn’t always able to enjoy the fruits of his barn’s labor to its fullest.

“He never slept,” Belfiore said. “Even when he was going through all the cancer treatment, he’d had surgery and chemo and radiation, and you’d see him and the toll it was taking. But he would be on these hour-plus conference calls, about work comp, or whatever issue was going on, and you could not tell from him, the way he attacked the problem, or how he spoke on the phone.

“We were on the phone every day, and he would say, ‘OK, this is what we’ve got to do,'” she said. “I mean, he didn’t miss a beat. It was crazy. It was amazing, that he had that kind of dedication and energy to spare. But also, it was his life. Racing, the horses, the backstretch … that was his life.”

“He was always a very positive person to be around, and I’d still go hide in a corner and cry sometimes,” Cohen said. “You try to be positive.”

“Absolutely, good guy … good guy,” Rice said.

So it’s not much of a stretch to predict that it will be an emotional scene on Wednesday after the second race, named for Rick Violette.

For the many people who were close to him, it’s still dizzying to consider how Diversify showed up just in time to give him one last burst of glory toward the horizon.

“Everybody was rooting for him [in the Whitney]. Everybody,” Schosberg said.

“Yeah, it’s kind of eerie to look back on, and appreciate,” Donk said. “Especially with Ralph, his wife and daughter, they’re very close and had been with Rick a long time, so I think for them to win it together, I think Rick would have a great appreciation winning it for them … it kind of gives you goosebumps thinking about it.”

“That horse was an absolute blessing,” Cohen said. “Rick had a picture of him bedside when he was in the hospital. It was a fairy tale. He kept everyone’s spirits up. He just came around at the perfect time. It’s a movie. It’s a cheesy movie, but it really happened. It’s still surreal.”

“You can’t make that up,” Belfiore said. “If you did that in a movie — and I’m sure this has been said before — like, ‘C’mon. Really?!’ It almost couldn’t have been more perfect. And it was so incredibly well-deserved, to have that moment.”

“It was a surreal day, between the storm, the thunder and lightning, the delay, the darkness into light, the rainbow … it was pretty bizarre,” Violette said the morning after the Whitney. “Last night I woke up every 10 minutes from the adrenaline.”

Violette did this interview relaxing on a chair in the shedrow, nibbling on an English muffin with his back resting against the barn wall, not far from the Whitney blanket of pink roses draped over a wooden barrier for everybody to share.

Cohen was briskly patrolling, keeping everything neat and tight, always a picture of good cheer and authority around their barn and walking ring, and the paddock and track.

Within the confines of his stall, Diversify just wasn’t having it, so they let him goof around in a round pen for two hours, then he wandered the barn area to graze on grass, tugging at his hot walker, but ultimately obeying, as she dug in, broke into a smile and shook her head in resignation.

Everything was in order.

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