Stand Up

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Originally published in The Saratoga Special August 5, 2018.

Saturday afternoon, over about two hours, through the rain, the sun and even a rainbow, I saw all of Rick Violette’s life – all that he represents, all that he is about, all that he has built.

As horses arrived in the paddock for the Whitney, it started raining, clouds descended, thunder rumbled, the race was delayed, people hovered, horses waited. Violette voiced his opinion of what was happening, the impending storm, the horses being tacked up for an hour, the decisions by one and all. Before, during and after, he instilled confidence in his jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., who wasn’t sure about going to the rail on the front-running Diversify. Violette made sure that Ortiz knew that sealing the track was to their advantage.

As Violette ranted like only he can, his assistant, Melissa Cohen walked with Diversify, outside under the trees, then inside under the tent, then outside in the rain again. Violette’s loyalist, Violette’s glue, Violette’s rock, Cohen circled from the off-side shank, walking and walking, nothing but a sly smile. Rain pelted her, she didn’t seem to notice. After the Whitney, Violette looked for the Whitney saddle towel, texted Cohen. She had it of course. “I don’t know why I even questioned it,” Violette said. “She’s so special. Sainthood.” Cohen is a star, setting the bar for the entire Violette barn, he’s appreciative, perhaps that’s how loyalty is built.

Watching the Whitney, just the two of us in a front-row box, Violette watched quietly, then uttered one word, “Yes,” and one action, a fist slam to the wooden ledge. Diversify had just passed the eighth pole, I worried about Mind Your Biscuits and Discreet Lover. Violette wasn’t worried. Definitive as ever, just as he had been when he went against the grain and ran Diversify a month after a big effort in the Suburban.

In the Saratoga Room, Ralph Evans, who has had horses with Violette for decades, talked about his trainer, his friend.

“He treats my money like it’s his,” Evans said.

Strong words and exactly what you want from your trainer, your friend.

Walking toward the Nelson Avenue Gate at the end of the day, I asked Violette about the win and his perspective after battling cancer two years ago. “Is it different after being sick?” Sometimes when you ask that question, you worry you won’t get an answer. I knew I would get an answer, another high fastball, Violette doesn’t paint corners.

“It’s a weird thing. It’s great and it’s important, but whip cream and cherry on top,” Violette said. “I’m telling you, to all the people who took care of me, New York, Florida, Saratoga, Kentucky, that’s all a win, the friends who came out of the woodwork, the people that you didn’t know cared for you at all, people who went over the moon to help you. This is terrific and without minimizing how terrific this is, this is kind of the dressing, the other stuff is important, I have so many more friends that I never knew I had.”

With that, longtime racetracker Lew Kobel congratulated Violette and then his phone rang, he answered it in one ring, “Hey Boss…” It was Elliott Walden, who once managed Diversify before Ralph and Lauren Evans bought him on Violette’s advice. Violette switched gears in a flash, from talking about life to taking care of business, barely a merging lane in between.

As I walked away, I thought about all the years I’ve known Violette, all the enlightening conversations, all the challenging conversations. As president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Violette stood up for The Saratoga Special when we needed him most, there was no wavering, he was going to war with us, for us.

I thought about that. I also thought about the time I fell on my sword, telling him, “Look, it’s my fault,” I said, expecting a break. He stared me down, “I know it’s your fault.” Violette doesn’t try to make you feel better, he doesn’t duck strife, he doesn’t waver from conflict. Another time he screamed at me, “Sometimes you can’t ride the fence, you’ve got to stand up for something.”

He was right both times.

Yeah, I thought about those conversations, I thought about the times I’ve heard horsemen complain about him, complain about the length of his meetings, about his steadfastness, about his stubbornness. Then I thought about all the times that I’ve heard horsemen wonder how he could devote so much time into such a relentlessly demanding job, how often I’ve heard them talk about his dedication, his passion, his loyalty to the game.

I was still thinking of all that, the dichotomy of it all when I stopped at the light on the corner of East Avenue and Union Avenue, waiting for traffic to clear. Valet/exercise rider Barry Downes stood by the light, leaning on an umbrella.

“I’m happy for Rick,” Downes said. “I worked for him, he’s tough, but he deserves it. All he’s been through, all he’s done for the game.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s a stand-up guy.”

Downes nodded.

“He stands up,” Downes said. “And he doesn’t back down.”

No, Violette doesn’t back down, not to making tough decisions for horses in big races, not to representing horsemen in rough seas, and, certainly not to cancer.