Trainer Rick Violette Jr., who retired in 2017 after 10 years as President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and more than 25 years as a member of the NYTHA Board, passed away this morning at his home in Delray Beach, Florida, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 65.
Violette was born January 30, 1953 in Worchester, Massachusetts and showed hunters and jumpers as a teenager. After his graduation from Lowell University, Violette turned his attention to the racetrack and, at age 24, began training thoroughbreds full-time. He saddled his first starter on June 25, 1977 at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Massachusetts. His first win came less than two months later with Catch the Action on August 18 at Rockingham in New Hampshire.
Following his training start, Violette worked as an assistant to Emile Allain at Woodbine Racetrack in Ontario, Canada, before moving to New York as David Whiteley's assistant trainer. He resumed his own stable in 1983.
“Today is a sad day for horsemen, backstretch workers and horse racing in general,” said NYTHA President Joe Appelbaum. “We have lost a leader. Rick Violette was one of a kind – smart, tenacious and indefatigable. His commitment to horse racing was unparalleled. From worker's compensation to the racing program to the welfare of our workers, there was no area on track that Rick was not deeply involved in. The last four years have been a great education for me. Working with Rick, he taught me so much – the history of the game (both on and off track), the inner workings of the backstretch and the economics facing the modern trainer. I will miss him.”
Violette's support of the New York breeding program was no more evident than in the litany of talented New York-breds he sent postward over the years, including multiple graded stakes winners Read the Footnotes, Samraat, and two-time New York-bred champion Upstart.
“I had the privilege to work with Rick for over a decade through many ups and downs in New York racing. His perseverance will never be matched,” said Jeffrey Cannizzo, Executive Director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders. “Rick did so much tirelessly on behalf of his fellow horsemen. He stuck to his morals and always kept to his beliefs. I had the utmost respect for him and learned much from his actions. As I told him this summer, I'm glad we had the chance to see how good a horseman he truly was this year with Diversify. His support will be missed by all of New York.”
Most recently, Violette campaigned Lauren and Ralph M. Evans' New York-bred Diversify to victory in the 2017 Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, as well as the Grade 2 Suburban and Grade 1 Whitney this summer. Through three seasons of racing, Diversify has garnered nearly $2 million in earnings with 10 wins from 16 starts. Additional Grade 1 winners for Violette include Kentucky-bred Dream Rush and the Florida-bred Man From Wicklow, who Violette also owned.
Through his nearly four-decade-long career, Violette recorded 870 wins and total purse earnings of $44,521,759. His final winner was Byself in an allowance optional claiming race on Sunday, October 14 at Belmont Park.
Violette found perhaps his greatest passion, however, advocating for issues affecting horsemen and backstretch workers and the advancement of thoroughbred aftercare.
NYTHA's accomplishments during Rick's presidency were truly historic. Here are some highlights:
- Led NYTHA through the bankruptcy and reorganization of NYRA, protecting approximately $25 million in purse money that was left exposed during the process and would have been lost without NYTHA's actions
- Negotiated the horsemen's share of VLT revenues, fighting to get the share for purses from 5.5% to 7.5%, which nets about $15 million additional revenue to purses annually
- Led the reorganization and strengthening of NYTHA, which had no reserves in 2007, but is now financially stable. Because of that stability, the NYTHA has been able to:
- Contribute a record $1,996,200 to benevolence initiatives in 2016
- Raise its annual grants to the BEST Program to nearly $700,000
- Donate more than $350,000 annually to equine aftercare initiatives
- More than double the grants of its college scholarship program, which now distributes more than $200,000 annually to backstretch workers and their families
- More than triple the funding for the RTCA and its Backstretch Recreation Program, which now receives more than $150,000 annually
- Was a founding member of the THA in 1995. The THA established the Mid-Atlantic Uniform Medication Program, which is now the national Uniform Medication Program
- Secured legislation that mandates NYRA must have the agreement of the NYTHA and the NYTB in making any changes to the Aqueduct racing dates, ensuring the protection of year-round racing
- Secured a seat on the NYRA Board for New York's horsemen, and fought to get back the voting rights for horsemen and breeders
- Worked with the NYS Gaming Commission to establish a split sample program in New York
- Led the reorganization and strengthening of the Backstretch Employee Service Team, which was close to bankruptcy 10 years ago
- Championed the Backstretch Education, which offers ESL courses, a language lab, the Groom Development Program and, with BEST, the Backstretch Bistro
- Founding member of the Board of the TAA
- Founded the TAKE2 Second Career Thoroughbred Program and TAKE THE LEAD Thoroughbred Retirement Program
- Commissioned the Operational Risk Assessment sponsored by NYTHA and NYJICF, and conducted by Marsh Risk Consulting
- Created the safety equipment voucher program to ensure that all exercise riders have helmets and vests that are up to code
- Created the lunch voucher program at Aqueduct for backstretch workers
- Spearheaded the $300 per start credit program to help defray the cost of workers' compensation insurance
“Rick was so much more than all he contributed to New York racing,” said NYTHA Executive Director Andy Belfiore. “He was a passionate advocate for the horsemen, the backstretch workers and the horses, and still served as co-chair of the BEST Board and President of the TAKE2 Second Career Thoroughbred Program. He was an invaluable mentor and boss. But most of all he was incredibly thoughtful and giving, an amazing person I was so very lucky to call my friend.”
“Rick Violette embodied New York racing, and his commitment to the men and women who are the backbone of our sport was unparalleled,” said NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay. “As the longtime President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, Rick was a powerful advocate in Albany for the interests of horsemen and women across New York. Knowing how hard he worked, and the determination he showed throughout his life, it was particularly fitting to see the success Rick enjoyed over the past year with multiple Grade 1 winner Diversify. On behalf of the New York Racing Association, we offer our condolences to Rick's family, friends and colleagues. He will be missed.”
Statement from the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association on the passing of Rick Violette:
“There aren't enough words to adequately describe Rick's contributions to the racing industry. Simply put, he was a giant of our industry and a consequential force, both in New York racing and the industry as a whole. Horsemen's leaders are oft criticized. Rick was beloved.
“There is not a segment of our industry that has not been impacted by Rick's work. He was consumed with the best interests of New York racing and the racing industry. He was a force behind the creation of the THA. He was, perhaps, the most consequential figure in New York racing over the past 20 years. He fought for the best interests of horsemen, backstretch workers, the health and viability of NYRA, the health and welfare of the horse, the integrity of racing and the care of our horses after their racing careers ended. He was instrumental in getting workers compensation coverage for jockeys. He protected winter racing at Aqueduct. He led reforms in racehorse safety and medication management of horses. He did not have a peer. He was tough, opinionated and determined. He was also a man of class and a gentleman. He was always a good interview for the media. He was beloved by everyone. Besides being a great leader off the track, he was also a damned good and respected horseman, who thankfully was enjoying the greatest success of his career before illness took him down.
“We are grateful that this past August, Rick's friends and colleagues honored him at Saratoga and announced the establishment of the Violette Award, a suitable honor to perpetuate his example. The Violette Award will identify and honor an individual in racing who, like Rick, has demonstrated a commitment to ensuring the integrity and best interests of racing, the preservation of live racing, the fairness of competition, the health, safety and welfare of the horse and rider, and the best interests of horsemen and backstretch workers. We will comb the industry to find an appropriate and deserving honoree.”
Statement from Alex Waldrop, NTRA president and CEO
“With the death of Rick Violette, Thoroughbred racing has lost a powerful and effective leader who left an indelible mark on many segments of the industry. As the longtime head of both the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) and the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (THA), Rick was tireless in his commitment not just to horsemen's issues but also safety and integrity and jockey welfare as well as Thoroughbred retirement and retraining. Rick devoted his entire career to these and other important industry causes while at the same time becoming a very successful trainer on one of the nation's most competitive circuits. His substantial contributions to the industry cannot be overstated. He will be greatly missed.”
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