There's a winner's tale in `Footnotes'

Top-ranked Derby pick takes trainer Violette for unaccustomed ride

Horse Racing

March 12, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - You almost heard of Rick Violette last year.

A man for whom he trains horses nearly bought Funny Cide two years ago. And last year, of course, Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, thrusting his trainer, Barclay Tagg, into the national spotlight.

Violette, 51, spent 2003 as he has spent his entire 25-year training career - out of the spotlight and in the trenches. But this year, he is making headlines with Read the Footnotes, the No. 1-ranked Kentucky Derby contender in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's weekly poll.

A winner of five of six races, Read the Footnotes would reaffirm his status as the top 3-year-old with a victory in the $1 million Florida Derby tomorrow at Gulfstream Park.

He is the 7-5, morning-line favorite in a field of 10 in this major race seven weeks before the Derby.

Violette also trains a second Derby contender named Swingforthefences, who will compete in the Tampa Bay Derby on Sunday at Tampa Bay Downs.

Thoughtful and soft-spoken, the New York-based Violette recalls the oft-repeated yarn about going to a party of non-racing people, being asked what you do and hearing the inevitable question: "Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?"

Violette has never started a horse in the Derby - or in the Preakness, either. In 1995, he finished third in the Belmont with Citadeed.

"Winning the Kentucky Derby isn't the barometer of how successful you've been in the business," Violette said. "Of course, you think about it, but I don't go to bed thinking I'd be unfulfilled if I never won the Kentucky Derby."

Violette's journey with Read the Footnotes began at Timonium last May, a couple of days after Funny Cide demolished the field in the Preakness.

A 2-year-old New York-bred, Read the Footnotes was for sale in the Fasig-Tipton auction at the Timonium fairgrounds. He wasn't just another horse in the catalog. During pre-sale workouts, he smoked three furlongs in 33 1/5 seconds.

That broke the record for a run at that distance at any Fasig-Tipton sale. Smoke Glacken had held the mark. Smoke Glacken, champion sprinter in 1997, is Read the Footnotes' sire.

Violette bought Read the Footnotes for Seth Klarman, who owns an investment firm in Boston, with a bid of $320,000. Oddly, Tagg, who ended up training Funny Cide, also bid on Read the Footnotes, but dropped out early.

"I've spent all my life and never seen a horse go three-eighths in 33 at Timonium," said Tagg, who trained for three decades in Maryland and still owns a home there. "He just looked like a rock-hard horse."

Violette realized that $320,000 was a lot to pay for a 2-year-old at Timonium. And he wouldn't normally be attracted to the horse who worked fastest before the sale. Sometimes, that's the fastest that horse will ever run.

But Violette always liked Smoke Glacken, and Klarman was looking for horses who might excel in the big races.

"After the sale, he was immediately tractable," Violette said of Read the Footnotes. "He wasn't wound up like a nine-day clock. He didn't have his brain fried. He showed a lot of class from Day One."

He also showed that as tractable as he was on the racetrack, he was ruthless around the barn.

"He's basically ferocious," Violette said, trying to feed the horse carrots while standing out of range of his mouth.

"He only bites the carrot to entice you closer so he can take your finger off. He schooled people early to give him a wide berth."

Walking to and from the track, however, Read the Footnotes hangs his head low and shuffles along like an old mule. He saves his fierceness for competition, and he never needed it more than he did Feb. 14 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream.

It was his sixth race - but first as a 3-year-old. At 2, he won his debut at Saratoga by a smashing 9 1/4 lengths. He won an allowance race at Belmont by 2 1/2 lengths, and then in the Grade I Champagne Stakes, he encountered a breathing problem and finished sixth.

He underwent surgery to correct the problem, and then reeled off stakes victories at Aqueduct - the Grade III Nashua by 2 1/4 lengths and the Grade II Remsen by 3 3/4 lengths.

In the Fountain of Youth, his first race in nearly three months, Read the Footnotes and the tenacious Second of June locked up down the stretch in a head-to-head duel.

Read the Footnotes and his ever-wily jockey, Jerry Bailey, prevailed by a neck. Violette worries that the race might have drained him for the Florida Derby.

He has babied the colt since that taxing performance. He expects him to regress but hopes he can defeat this field with less than his best effort.

"He ran his lifetime best in the Fountain of Youth, and he's running back in four weeks," Violette said. "They can't keep running lifetime bests."

Florida Derby data

Site: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale Beach, Fla.

When: Tomorrow

Purse: $1 million

Grade: I

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Favorite: Read the Footnotes

Maryland entrant: Tapit

Post time: 4:20 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

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