Farewell Friend

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Rick Violette passed away more than a month ago. That still seems difficult to believe, let alone write. The news of Rick’s passing trickled in the afternoon of Oct. 21 through the usual channels, by phone calls from friends, social media or news reports online, and hit the game hard.

Our team at The Saratoga Special, who did not have a more loyal ally in racing than Violette, felt the sting.

The news didn’t exactly blindside us, or anyone in the industry, since we knew he’d battled cancer for the last few years. The news still hurt since we immediately knew we’d lost a friend and supporter, and our game lost so much more.

We sprang into action and discussed a plan during some back-and-forth phone calls and emails from Kentucky to Maryland to Virginia. Reach out to the folks closest to Rick, his allies, colleagues, clients, friends and racetrack family. We’ll pull everything together and pen a proper obit to our friend, whom we saw and chatted with every day in Saratoga and even shared an awesome evening at Caffe Lena in late July. More on that cool night here in a bit.

Then we didn’t.

The end of the Keeneland fall meet, the last six steeplechase meets of the season, the Breeders’ Cup, fall breeding stock sales, Thanksgiving and – the real reason – procrastination brought us to last week and still no proper obit. Rick’s funeral came and went in late October and a memorial to celebrate his life was scheduled by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association for Monday night at Belmont Park. Surely we’d pull everything together – we’d done many of the interviews after all – by the weekend. Then we didn’t, again.

A big crowd turned out Monday in the Belmont Café on the first floor of the clubhouse just past the wire to say goodbye one final time. They came from all over, me from upstate New York by car in a persistent rainstorm all the way down the Taconic Parkway and others by plane from California, Kentucky, Florida and elsewhere. The majority, Rick’s colleagues whether they were jockeys, trainers or owners, made relatively shorter trips from the area.

The assembled group could not have been more representative of Violette’s reach in the game. Backstretch workers, journalists, racetrack executives, representatives of horsemen’s associations came to either speak or hear others tell tales about their late friend.

Two who knew Violette best – and perhaps the longest – were there in Ralph Evans and Andy Belfiore. Evans and his wife Judith, from Connecticut and two of Violette’s most loyal patrons, took seats in the front of the room as NYTHA President Joe Applebaum made some brief remarks. Belfiore, executive director of NYTHA, stood at the back.

Evans and Belfiore went way back with Violette, so they were naturals on our list of contacts. Belfiore met Violette in the winter of 1981 in South Florida.

“I was rubbing horses and looking for a job to go to Florida for the winter and got hired by Angel Penna Jr.,” Belfiore said in late October. “Rick at the time was an assistant and exercise rider for him. It just so happened that they gave me three horses in a barn that was away from the main group, so I was all by myself with these three horses. Rick used to come every morning and get on those three so we hung out a lot. He’d bring coffee every morning for both of us.”

The two stayed friends over the months that turned into years that turned into decades. They worked together again after Belfiore, far removed from her days rubbing horses on the track, gave up her post as an editor at Thoroughbred Daily News to first handle communications and later become executive director at NYTHA.

“He was always a tough but fair boss,” Belfiore said. “Quite a bit tougher in the earlier years, but he got to where he mellowed a bit. I emphasize a little bit. I’m sure Melissa (Cohen, Violette’s longtime assistant) might question how mellow. But he never expected more of his people than he did of himself. He set a very high bar and would expect you to raise your game to meet his expectations.

“You couldn’t have a better boss. He made you better. He made you think. He made you want to do the very best job you could, because you saw how hard he was working. He was so sharp and so smart and did his homework. You learned so much, especially coming into NYTHA, about politics, about Albany, how to navigate, how to negotiate, how to pick your battles, when to compromise. All those things. He had such a grasp of them. One of the qualities I always admired most about Rick, he never made a decision without doing his homework, talking to people, getting feedback and really knowing the subject. And he could, on occasion, say, ‘you know what, I was wrong about that, let’s revisit that.’ “

Many of the speakers Monday night echoed Belfiore’s sentiments, talking about Violette’s unwavering principles, passion for debate and willingness to lead.

Others mentioned his stellar horsemanship, which reached a crescendo this past summer when he sent Diversify to victory for Evans and his daughter Lauren in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga but also included campaigning major stakes winners Upstart, Samraat, Dream Rush, March Magic, Man From Wicklow, Read The Footnotes and others.

Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the National THA and the first speaker of the night, probably said it best early in his remarks.

“I knew him a certain way, you all knew him a certain way and I think you would all agree with me that there will never be another Rick Violette,” Foreman said. “We were all blessed to have him in our presence. For me I had a front-row seat for 30 years. To see something that I’ve never seen in this business … I never met a person who was so devoted to the people on the backstretch, to the people on the front side, to the horses, to the integrity of this sport and to the best interest of racing than my friend Rick Violette.”

Evans met Violette in the early 1990s, when the two were charged with helping clean up the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund. The way Evans remembers it, members of the board representing the NYRA circuit and Finger Lakes were to secure insurance policies covering jockeys and exercise riders while figuring out a way to pay for it.

Evans conceded he might not have been as “pro-NYRA as I should have been since I was representing them” during some of the discussions. Violette no doubt got word of this and showed up at a meeting.

“In no uncertain terms he told me what he thought about my supposed fence-sitting, if you will,” Evans said back in October. “I was impressed. This guy didn’t know me from Adam. That was my first experience with Rick. Subsequently I was elected to the (NYTHA) board, he was on the board and he subsequently took it over and I remained on the board for many years. But that’s how I first met him.”

Evans owned a few horses in training at the time, one trained in Florida by “an old Army buddy of mine” and others with a trainer getting his business going on the East Coast. Evans’ Army friend suggested a change in venue – to take on better competition in better races – for the horse in Florida.

Evans approved the switch and needed a trainer.

Around that same time Evans, Violette and trainer Pat Kelly flew from Long Island to Rochester to meet with horsemen at Finger Lakes about the jockey fund. On the trip back, Violette’s interaction with another owner stood out to Evans.

“On the way to the Rochester airport Rick said ‘excuse me I have to call one of my owners.’ I was impressed with that,” Evans said. “So that was the second positive impression I had with Rick.

“He had about six horses at the time. I knew he was active on horseman’s issues. So I contacted him to see if he was interested in this one horse. He was and he called me after the horse came and said this ‘is a neat horse.’ He was a mid-range claimer, a grass horse, and we did fine with him. We gradually expanded somewhat from there. I guess we expanded as my pocketbook expanded.”

Many of Evans’ top horses were featured in a video tribute to Violette produced by NYRA’s TV and broadcast operations department and shown Monday night, Upstart and March Magic among them. Other top Violette runners were included in the video, from Man From Wicklow to Dream Rush, Citadeed to Samraat and Gitchie Goomie to Read The Footnotes.

And of course, Diversify.

Diversify delivered a top-of-the-resume victory to Violette’s decorated career last summer with a perfect performance in the Grade 1 Whitney, a popular victory around the racetrack for those who knew the trainer best. The moments before the rain-delayed Whitney, when everyone huddled under the awnings near the saddling stalls – the Evanses, Violette, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., Cohen and the other human connections to nearly half the field – created one of those moments that if you were lucky enough to be there you’ll never forget.

Sean Clancy watched the race with Violette and captured the moment – and the aftermath – in two of the best on-deadline pieces ever to come across my desk in more than 20 years as a writer or editor at any publication. Check them out here and here, even if you already did last summer.

They Whitney came up a lot Monday, a signature victory for a singular man. It’s difficult to call it career defining, because there was so much more to Violette than stakes victories. What came from the speakers’ mouths summed up some of it, words like advocate, articulate, determined, impact, life-changer, motivator, respect, relentless, passionate, prepared and class.

“Rick was a very, very meticulous person, not only as a horse trainer but was someone who studied the issues he was involved in,” Evans said. “He worked at it. You knew where he stood, which I think a lot of people mention that about him. There were occasions when my advice to him was to tone it down a bit. That was not his forte. You knew where he stood, he was not always right, clearly, but he had his reasons for doing whatever he did. I’m speaking more about the politics now than the horsemanship. I never questioned that.”

Most of the attendees hung around to chat and share stories after the formal portion of Monday’s memorial service concluded. Foreman said he was “blown away” at the turnout, as did trainer Jim Bond, a former NYTHA board member, who remarked “you can really tell a lot about the meaning Rick’s life when you see a crowd like this.”

Shortly before I got back in the car to trek north through the rain, I was stopped by trainer Chad Summers. He asked if I had a favorite Rick Violette story.

Easy answer.

Even though I’d known him since the early 2000s the favorite moment came just four months ago. Late one night after finishing the paper and downing an IPA or two, Sean pulled up the summer concert schedule for Caffe Lena. Most nights are out – production of the paper and all – but we decided Joan Osborne performing Bob Dylan songs Sunday, July 29 might be fun and booked some tickets.

The night of the show we grabbed a quick bite at Henry Street Taproom before the short walk to Caffe Lena on Phila Street. We were almost in the door and spotted a man on a bench talking on his cellphone.

“Hey, is that Rick Violette?” Joe asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“Yes, it’s Rick,” Sean said.

Like three fan boys – or reporters looking for a scoop – we waited until he finished his call and pounced.

“What are you guys doing here?” Rick asked.

“We were about to ask you the same thing.”

“I love this place.”

We exchanged some more small talk, each of us agreeing that we wished we had more free time during the meet to do non-racing things. Then we realized we might be intruding on Rick’s non-racing thing with non-racing people and in the doors and up the stairs we went. We sat on one side of the room, ordered coffee, tea and some desert, and raised a glass to Violette a few feet away at a different table at the back of the room at some point in the show highlighted by Osborne’s performance of the classics Tangled Up In Blue, Gotta Serve Somebody and Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat.

The show ended, we said our goodbyes and Rick left us with a “see you guys in the morning.” Over an after-show pint – no doubt at Henry Street again – we processed it all. 

“How awesome was it seeing Rick Violette tonight?”

“So cool. Man, he’s the best.”

No doubt about that.