Longtime New York Racing Association (NYRA) horseman and former president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) Richard Violette, Jr. passed away this morning in Florida following a lengthy illness. 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.
"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."
Violette was an ardent advocate for New York horse racing, having served more than 25 years on the NYTHA board, including nine as its president from 2008-2017. He was a member of NYRA's Board of Directors during his tenure as NYTHA president. He was also the former president of the national Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (THA). Violette was named director emeritus of the THA in 2018.
"Rick was a champion, plain and simple. His work, largely unnoticed and often unrecognized, made the lives of the backstretch workers better. He was their promoter and defender - creating and solidifying programs that have real impact on people's lives - health care, college scholarships, rider safety, substance abuse counseling. These programs would not exist without Rick's foresight and perseverance," said NYTHA President Joe Appelbaum. "For twenty-five years, Rick fought like a lion for the horsemen and our workers; gaining us a voice in the conversation with his tireless effort and tenacious spirit. Visiting the backstretch at Saratoga, not seeing him standing at the main track gap with his binoculars slung over his shoulder is unimaginable. What a sad day for horse racing."
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.
At NYTHA, Violette oversaw the expansion of a number of social initiatives, including its college scholarship program and racehorse aftercare. In addition, he championed and secured funding for Backstretch Education, which offers ESL courses, a language lab and the Groom Development Program.
Violette was co-chair of the Backstretch Employee Service Team Board of Directors (B.E.S.T), a non-profit based at Belmont Park that provides free health and social services to the backstretch communities at all NYRA tracks.
He was a founding member of the Board of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and co-created the TAKE THE LEAD Thoroughbred Retirement Program. In 2012, he co-founded TAKE2 Second Career Thoroughbred Program with a focus on providing an avenue for the retraining of retired racehorses for the show horse world. He served as the organization's president until his death.