By Dave Johnson
There is a camaraderie at any racetrack that you seldom find in other sports or businesses–not only among the trainers who show up at an unfamiliar venue with a horse box and one or twofour-legged lifelines to the sport; not only among the riders who check into a new jockey’s room with a duffel bag, a helmet, a whip and a dream.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out for the unfamiliar names of trainers and jockeys. And many times they end up as regulars in any number of different roles at your favorite racetrack.
Angel Cordero, Jr. was a top rider. Now he books mounts all over the world for John Velazquez, who is riding here at Royal Ascot this week.
I remember Buddy Martens, an exercise rider in his own right, who operated the elevator for the NYRA when he gave up riding horses. And Buddy’s son, George Martens, just happened to ride the winner of the Belmont S. in 1981 on Summing.
So it was not that strange to have conversation with Charlie Tipthorn in the Press Box at the Royal Ascot meeting on Wednesday.
Charlie now works in the security department for the most famous racetrack in the world, but the conversation quickly turned to recently departed trainer Rick Violette, Jr.
Back in 1990 Charlie was an aspiring steeplechase jockey who was exercising horses here in England. In the spring, after the jump season was slowing down, times were tough and jobs were infrequent.
Charlie, at 18, lied to his parents and told them he had a job in the United States. There was no job. He took all of his savings and bought a ticket to New York. Charlie said he spent almost every penny he had on a hotel the night he arrived and a taxi to Belmont Park the next morning.
At the Belmont Park stable gate, the Pinkerton guard in charge told him he was “a mad Englishman to arrive with no job.”
But, he was given a three-day pass to find work. He was “an odd bird,” with English riding boots and clothes.
That is where Rick Violette changed the course of the life for Charlie Tipthorn. He hired the youngster as an exercise rider. With his first paycheck, Tipthorn bought a set of American riding gear, and settled in on the backstretch in Elmont, New York.
Charlie was devastated when I told him that Rick had passed away last October. The outpouring of respect was overwhelming. Tipthorn said that Violette was the most focused person in any backstretch to the needs of his horses, and a deep commitment to the men and women who are the backbone of racing. He called his association with Violette a miracle of his life and a teacher on being strict and determined in whatever he did.
Charlie moved back to England later that year. He worked for trainers Guy Harwood, Nicky Henderson and others. He did ride in steeplechase races here in England, but that profession was short lived, as the weight factor cut his riding days short. Nine stone (126 pounds) became impossible.
But not the influence of Rick Violette.
Not just for the more than 800 races won. Not just for the more than 32 graded stakes winners he conditioned. Not just for the humor, wit, compassion and intelligence he brought to his industry quests. And not just for his extraordinary work as president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
But for all of that and more, on July 17 this year at Saratoga the first Rick Violette Stakes for 2-year-olds with a purse of $100,000 will be presented.
Rick’s influence and example reaches much farther than the racetrack at Saratoga.