04/06/2004 11:00PM

No second-guessing from Violette

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FAIR HILL, Md. - Rick Violette smacked a ground ball up the middle. An infield single was all he could hope for as he dashed down the first-base line. He beat the throw.

As he stood on first base, proud of himself, he was heckled.

Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley, Violette's boss at the time, was not impressed.

"You're cheating me, boy," Whiteley yelled from the sidelines.

"What?" was all Violette could muster.

"You got this much energy at 7:30 at night - you aren't putting out enough for me."

It has been almost 25 years since Violette played softball at Belmont Park and worked 12-hour days as Whiteley's assistant. Violette, 51, is now his own boss as a trainer, but is still beating out grounders and fighting off the hecklers.

Violette sends out aptly named Swingforthefences in Saturday's Wood Memorial. And he's the "B" horse. Violette won the Fountain of Youth with Read the Footnotes, who despite flopping in the Florida Derby, is still the "A" horse.

Less than a month away from the Kentucky Derby and Violette has two horses in contention, both owned by Seth Klarman's Klaravich Stable.

He wasn't cheating you, Mr. Whiteley. Like another one of your pupils, Barclay Tagg, Violette has worked hard to get here.

"You have to stop yourself sometimes - we have less than four weeks and we have two horses standing," Violette said. "I have every reason to believe Swingforthefences is going to run huge in what might be one of the tougher Derby preps. We'll find out what he's made of. If he runs one-two-three, it's possible we'll run two in the Derby. That's a scary thought."

Violette began this Derby trail with two horses he selected at 2-year-old in training sales. The first question was could Read the Footnotes, a son of Smoke Glacken, get the trip? He gamely won the Fountain of Youth going 1 1/16 miles off an 11-week layoff.

The next round of questions came. Would he bounce from the Herculean effort? The answer: like a down-and-out trainer's check to the feed man.

Read the Footnotes finished fourth in the Florida Derby on March 13. Violette immediately decided to skip the next prep and go straight to the Derby off a seven-week gap. And he thought Whiteley was tough on him. Whew, the questions started coming.

"Seven weeks, in this day and age, is almost perfect timing," Violette said. "If he was unseasoned, if he hadn't run two-turn races, if he hadn't run fast enough, if he had too easy a race . . . all we have to do is get him back to his Fountain of Youth performance. The rest will take care of itself. If we get him there like that, then he'll be a tough son of a gun."

The Kentucky Derby can make a pressure cooker feel airy and cool. Some trainers shrug off the pressure, some fight it, some avoid it. In his first real experience with it, Violette is still feeling his way - trying to embrace the attention and stave off the criticism.

"It's a different ballgame when everybody knows every move you make," Violette said. "Every breeze, every non-breeze. Even when it's not second-guessed, if you change your mind, change your tactics, you're not only explaining it to the owner, you're explaining it to every person who picks up a phone. That becomes part of the job. It's high-profile, and it's where all of us want to be. It's not a complaint, it's an observation."

Violette has spent his life balancing those two elements. Criticism and observation often clip heels, especially near Derby time. Reporters might think they're making observations while trainers might take reporting as criticism. It's a slippery slope, especially when you're attempting to buck history and win the Derby with a horse who won't have run in April. If you didn't know, the last horse to do that was Needles, back in 1956.

"I think he can do it; it's seven weeks, not seven months," Violette said. "You do what you think is best. You explain it to the best of your ability. Those that can't grasp it, then so be it. Those who disagree, so be it. By and large, the press has been great, almost fans. Sometimes the lack of respect gets to you. Glib is cute, but sometimes glib is rude. We try to do the right thing, and there's a dream there that you can almost taste."

Less than a month away, and Violette could have two spoons for the greatest taste test in racing. If Swingforthefences steps up in the Wood, he will join Read the Footnotes in the Derby. After that, it's up to the horses.

"You come up with a game plan, and you live with it," Violette said. "The only way you're not going to be criticized is if you win. You could still be right, run great, and finish third. In some eyes, it's still a wrong move. You put that aside; this is the path we chose. You thought about every other option, you slept on it, you didn't make decisions in any rash manner, and you go and do your job."