SARATOGA SPRINGS — There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
But only because it was raining. Again.
A horse named Sky of Hook won the second race on the card at Saratoga Race Course on Wednesday, but a trainer named Rick Violette commanded the spotlight.
The New York Racing Association renamed Wednesday’s feature after Violette, who died at the age of 65 last October having suffered from the effects of lung cancer for several years, and the winner’s circle was drenched by steady rain.
Nevertheless, a large group, including his mother, Bea, piled into the winner’s circle under umbrellas for the trophy presentation, a joyous occasion for those who knew the former president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, a leader on a variety of important issues affecting horse racing.
Besides being an accomplished New York-based trainer, Violette was at the forefront of efforts to improve backstretch worker welfare, push for uniform medication rules for racehorses throughout the various states and generally look out for the best interests of fellow trainers.
So Wednesday’s race was a time to remember those aspects of his life, and not the sadness of his death last October, just over two months after the biggest victory of his career, Diversify’s Whitney win at Saratoga.
“He’d get this award or something in Saratoga, people would tell me, ‘Oh, I saw Rick on TV,'” Bea Violette said. “‘You did? Where? When?’ You’d think he’d tell us about it? He’d never tell us about a thing. Never heard half the things that happened. When he was sick, he was like that, too. He never complained about a thing. Everything was fine, and here he was, dying. If he’s going to fight for something, you know it. And he’d go for it.
“He might’ve gotten it from me,” she said, breaking into a smile.
The rainy day brought many back to last Aug. 4, when Diversify romped in the Whitney.
The race was delayed for 44 minutes by heavy rain, but it was worth the wait for the Diversify camp, including Violette, long-time assistant trainer Melissa Cohen and the co-owners, Ralph Evans and his daughter, Lauren, loyal Violette clients for decades.
The scene ended with a partial rainbow on the horizon as jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. guided Diversify into the winner’s circle.
“It seems to want to rain on Rick’s parade quite a bit, and it still does, but we make the most of it,” Cohen said. “It’s still a day of celebration for everybody.
“Yeah, I think he’s looking down on us with a smile, and who knows, maybe we’ll get a rainbow by the end of the day. We’ll see. It didn’t stop us then, and it won’t stop us today from having a good celebration.”
“We weren’t there, but it had to be the biggest moment in his life,” Bea Violette said. “I mean, he didn’t intend to have him run. He said, ‘The horse is telling me, the horse is telling me.’ You have to listen to the horse.
“And I asked Mrs. Evans how did you feel when he wanted to run Diversify in the Whitney, and she said, ‘We were thrilled. We were thrilled.’ Because it’s a joint effort, between the owner and the trainer. They’re wonderful, wonderful people. So many times, Rick wasn’t doing well for a long stretch. Mr. Evans stayed with him through thick and thin.”
In fact, Violette and Evans were each diagnosed with lung cancer around the same time, and underwent surgery months apart.
Violette died on Oct. 21, 11 weeks after Diversify won the Whitney.
“They got cancer at the same time, isn’t that funny? Mr. Evans went to Rick’s house, and he loved to come down to Delray [Beach, Fla.],” Bea Violette said. “And we said, ‘Oh, by the way, how’s Ralph doing?’ And he said, ‘He’s doing fine. And, guess what? I have the same thing.’
“That’s how he told us. We’re all sitting around. My daughter said, ‘What did you just say?’ He has cancer, too. And he didn’t beat it, unfortunately. But he tried.”
Dozens of Violette supporters, many of whom were fellow trainers and NYTHA members, as well as New York Racing Association and NYTHA administrators, turned up in the winner’s circle while the grounds continued to be pummeled by rain.
Cohen said she fully expects the initiatives and programs that Violette helped create will continue to thrive and be beneficial to the sport.
“Just a lot of good memories,” she said. “It’s a day to celebrate Rick’s life and what he’s accomplished and the way he made this industry and everybody around him better people.”
“It’s great to win a race like this that’s named after Rick for all the good things he’s done for the sport,” said Rudy Rodriguez, who trains Sky of Hook. “We really miss him.”
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