06/05/2006 11:00PM

Not one to back down from a challenge

Rick Violette and High Finance in their Aqueduct barn Tuesday morning.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - No one has ever accused trainer Rick Violette Jr. of being a front-runner. He has been a champion for the plight of backstretch workers and has represented trainers in dealings with track management, thankless work that can engender ill will.

"Unfortunately, you don't necessarily make friends, but I sleep well at night," Violette said Tuesday morning at his barn at Aqueduct. "Someone's got to do it."

Someone's got to win the Belmont Stakes, too. With the absence of both Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Bernardini, the Preakness Stakes winner, the 138th running of the on Saturday at Belmont Park is a wide-open race. A field of 12 was expected to be entered on Wednesday.

Violette will be trying to win the Belmont with a front-runner. High Finance, who in his last two starts defeated maidens at Keeneland and a first-level allowance field at Belmont, is taking a huge jump in class for the 1 1/2-mile race. It will be his stakes debut, and his first start both around two turns and beyond a mile. But in a race that figures to have a soft early pace, High Finance could prove an elusive target.

On Tuesday, High Finance had his final tune-up for the Belmont by breezing six furlongs on Aqueduct's fast main track in 1:13.68 under exercise rider Rodney Paine. He was steady as a metronome, going at the pace Violette would love to see unfold on Saturday.

Violette originally had planned on working High Finance on Sunday, but wet weather in recent days forced a postponement of the work until Tuesday.

"If he had had some big gallops, I might have gone only a half-mile with him," Violette said. "But the weather kind of compromised our training. He's had a pretty light last three or four days, which is why I worked him three-quarters and galloped out a mile."

At Belmont Park on Tuesday, three other Belmont runners had their final works on a fast main track. Deputy Glitters, who most recently finished 10th in the Derby, went five furlongs in 59.82 seconds with exercise rider Simon Harris. Platinum Couple, who was sixth in the Preakness, covered three furlongs in 37.82 seconds with exercise rider Martin Munoz. Platinum Couple wore blinkers in the work and will race with them for the first time in the Belmont, trainer Joe Lostritto said. Sacred Light, who was second when facing older horses in a Churchill Downs allowance race on Derby Day, covered six furlongs in 1:16.42 with exercise rider Martin de Rubin.

At Hollywood Park, Double Galore, a recent maiden winner there, zipped a half-mile in 46.60 seconds, the fastest time of 21 at the distance Tuesday.

Violette, 53, began his career in New England, and relocated to New York in 1983. He has been based at Aqueduct for the past several years, moving from Belmont after a dispute with Kenny Noe, the former head of the New York Racing Association who did not take kindly to those who questioned him. That's a position Violette often found himself as a member of the board of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"I don't have a wife and children, so I can take liberties that a guy who needs to put food on his table to feed his family can't take," Violette said. "Nothing you do will make everyone happy."

Serendipitously, the move to Aqueduct coincided with some of the best years of Violette's career. He was on the classic road two years ago, when Read the Footnotes won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and then went on to the Kentucky Derby. Violette did some of his best work with Man From Wicklow, a long-fused turf runner who captured the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap in 2003. Violette has 40 horses at Aqueduct and another 25 at Saratoga, the largest number of horses he has had in his career.

"Business is great," Violette said.

Violette, whose Citadeed finished third in the 1995 Belmont, trains a dozen horses for the West Point Thoroughbreds partnership, which owns High Finance. The chestnut-colored colt, a son of Talk Is Money, was purchased as a yearling for $120,000. He did not get to the races until January, when he finished second in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park. High Finance lost twice more against maidens at Gulfstream, but those races look much better now than they did then. Those races were won by Showing Up, who went on to capture the Lexington Stakes, and Bernardini.

"We couldn't figure him out," Violette said. "We didn't know what he wanted to do. He had high speed, but he seemed a bit of a grinder. I couldn't tell if I should back him up and sprint, or go two turns."

At Keeneland, in his fourth career start, High Finance won for the first time, crushing maidens by 9 1/2 lengths going seven furlongs.

"That was a bit of an eye-opener," Violette said. "He drew off after being rushed off his feet. A lot of times when a horse is rushed off his feet, he scrambles, scrambles, and then passes out."

In his most recent start, at Belmont Park, High Finance romped to a five-length victory going a mile after breaking through the gate before the start.

"Usually they don't run well when that happens," Violette said. "He ran his last quarter in 24 seconds, without a lot of urging."

The way High Finance finished in that race convinced Violette to take a shot in the Belmont.

While he takes pride in the development of his horses in general, and High Finance specifically, Violette also is gratified by his work behind the scenes. Violette graduated with a bachelor of science degree in political science from Lowell University in his native Massachusetts, and has put that background to good use.

Through the New York Thorough-bred Horsemen's Association, Violette has helped to get the sales tax on horses repealed in New York, helped control costs for workers' compensation insurance, and helped develop education programs for grooms, such as learning English as a second language.

And as the chairman of the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund, Violette has overseen increased insurance coverage for both jockeys and exercise riders through a revamping of how the system is funded.

"We've saved millions of dollars, and provided a system that works," Violette said. "I was a critic. They said, 'Shut up and fix it.' It annoys me when people only complain and don't try to fix the situation. I looked at it as an opportunity to be part of the change."

- additional reporting by David Grening

Belmont contenders

Horses pointing for the 138th Belmont at Belmont Park on June 10.

Bluegrass CatT. PletcherJ. Velazquez2nd, Ky. Derby
Bob and JohnB. BaffertG. Gomez17th, Ky. Derby
Deputy GlittersT. AlbertraniE. Prado8th, Ky. Derby
Double GaloreM. ChoM. Luzzi1st, Hol maiden
Hemingway's KeyN. ZitoJ. Rose3rd, Preakness
High FinanceR. VioletteE. Coa1st, Bel allowance
JazilK. McLaughlinF. Jara4th*, Ky. Derby
Oh So AwesomeJ. JerkensM. Smith3rd, Match the Hatch
Platinum CoupleJ. LostrittoJ. Espinoza6th, Preakness
Sacred LightD. HofmansV. Espinoza2nd, CD allowance
SteppenwolferD. PeitzR. Albarado3rd, Ky. Derby
SunriverT. PletcherR. Bejarano1st, Peter Pan

* - Dead heat