Richard Violette Jr., horse trainer and advocate, dies at 65

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NEW YORK — Richard Violette Jr., a thoroughbred trainer who advocated tirelessly on behalf of racetrack backstretch workers and improved care for retired racehorses, has died. He was 65.

Violette died Sunday at his home in Delray Beach, Florida, after a long struggle with lung cancer, according to the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Violette had trained Diversify to victories in the Grade 2 Suburban and Grade 1 Whitney handicaps last summer, as well as last year’s Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The 5-year-old gelding has earned nearly $2 million, with 10 wins in 16 starts.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Diversify would not run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 3 because he had not been training well.

Violette began his career in June 1977 and less than two months later he saddled his first winner in Rockingham, New Hampshire. He had 870 career victories and purse earnings of $44,521,759.

Among his other Grade 1 winners were Dream Rush and Man From Wicklow, whom Violette also owned.

His final winner was Byself on Oct. 14 at Belmont Park.

“Rick Violette embodied New York racing, and his commitment to the men and women who are the backbone of our sport was unparalleled,” NYRA CEO and president Chris Kay said in a statement. “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.”

Born Jan. 30, 1953, in Worchester, Massachusetts, Violette showed hunters and jumpers as a teenager. After graduating from Lowell University, he turned his attention to thoroughbred racing.

Violette later worked as an assistant trainer before going back out on his own in 1983.

He 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 its board. He oversaw the expansion of several initiatives, including the group’s college scholarship program and racehorse aftercare.

“Rick was a champion, plain and simple. His work, largely unnoticed and often unrecognized, made the lives of the backstretch workers better,” NYTHA president Joe Appelbaum said. “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.”

Violette sought and secured funding for an education program for backstretch workers that offered English-language classes and a groom development program. He was co-chair of a nonprofit based at Belmont Park that provides free health and social services to backstretch workers at all New York Racing Association tracks.

Violette was a founding member of the board for 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.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”