03/09/2004 12:00AM

From shadows to spotlight

Rick Violette will be a major player in two Kentucky Derby prep races this weekend, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Tampa Bay Derby.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - For a good part of his 25-year training career, Rick Violette's impact on the Thoroughbred industry has been as a behind-the-scenes player, fighting for horseman's rights and championing the cause of backstretch workers.

As chairman of the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund, Violette helped New York horsemen control the costs for workers compensation and jockeys' insurance. Through his association with the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association, Violette helped institute a groom education program. For the past four years, Violette has been the president of the national Thoroughbred Horseman's Association.

In the last year, with the backing of owner Seth Klarman, Violette has been able to show off his talents as a horseman. This weekend, Violette will be a major player in two Kentucky Derby prep races when he saddles Read the Footnotes as the probable favorite in Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, and Swingforthefences in Sunday's $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

"Seth and I pinch ourselves a few times a week,'' Violette, 51, said. "We've got two [Derby] horses in the top 15 or top 20 with [seven] weeks to go. It's definitely a nice spot to be in.''

And a far cry from the spot Violette was in during the mid-1990's when his stable shrank to seven horses. His primary client, Ralph Evans, kept things going for a few years with the stakes winners Miss Huff 'n Puff, March Magic, and Free of Love, but for the most part things were a struggle.

In 2002, Violette received horses from Klarman, who was experiencing some bad luck of his own and thought he needed to change trainers. Klarman, who had horses with Gary Sciacca, chose Violette, who came recommended by Jackie and Nick Demeric. The Demerics operate a farm in Ocala, Fla., and prepare most of Klarman's 2-year-olds.

"As an owner, it's important to be important to your trainer,'' said Klarman, who is an investor based in Boston. "I wouldn't have wanted to be one of 50 owners in someone else's barn. Rick and I have a good relationship and we talk and exchange ideas, and are both open to each other's ideas. He's very smart and very thoughtful about the training part. He's intimately involved with each individual horse.''

At first, Klarman's bad luck continued. Two of his horses suffered broken shoulders, a rare but fatal injury. Last year, the bad luck changed with the development of Read the Footnotes and Swingforthefences.

"One of my favorite sayings is you need speed in racehorses, and owners and trainers need stamina,'' Violette said. "And [Klarman] has really, really been a tremendous horseman. He lets you do the right thing for the horses and even when things are not going well there's an amazing calm and resiliency. He's a long-term investor. This isn't a short-term game. I think you can be successful if you stay in it long enough.''

Violette is proof of that himself. Violette grew up in Lawrence, Mass., outside of Boston, where as a teenager he showed hunters and jumpers. Violette, whose family was not involved in horses, had a client who also owned Thoroughbreds and took him to Suffolk Downs.

Violette fell in love with the sport and galloped horses through college - he studied political science at Lowell University. Upon graduation, Violette had to decide between show horses and racehorses.

"I thought I could get further with racehorses,'' Violette said.

Violette worked as an assistant to the Canadian-based trainer Emile Allain and then worked for Frank and David Whiteley. It was through his association with the Whiteleys that Violette began training for Alfred Vanderbilt. Violette won his first stakes for Vanderbilt with Tall Glass o' Water. Violette also trained the stakes-winning Upon My Soul for Vanderbilt.

Violette has slightly dabbled in the Triple Crown. In 1995, he was given the European-based Citadeed by owner Ivan Allan following that colt's seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. Violette won the Peter Pan with Citadeed and saddled him to a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

Last year, Violette and Klarman were briefly on the Triple Crown trail with Fund of Funds. He finished second to Ten Most Wanted in the Illinois Derby, but two weeks later was diagnosed with a tendon injury.

Violette also had a close call with greatness when it came to Funny Cide. Before Sackatoga Stable bought the New York-bred gelding, one of Violette's clients expressed interest in him. At the time, Violette's client was quoted a price of $40,000. Six weeks later, when Violette inquired about the horse, the price was $75,000. Violette's client declined to pay that much.

A few days after Funny Cide added the Preakness to his Kentucky Derby victory, Violette picked out a New York-bred son of Smoke Glacken for $320,000 at the Eaton Sales at Timonium. Violette didn't necessarily have Derby dreams for him.

"When you're spending that kind of money, he just better be a nice horse,'' Violette said.

Read the Footnotes won his first two starts like a nice horse, but finished sixth in the Champagne. He underwent a myectomy to correct a palate problem and since then won the Nashua, Remsen, and, last month, the Fountain of Youth. If he can add the Florida Derby to his r?sum?, Read the Footnotes certainly will be one of the favorites for the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

"If you show up every day, you have a chance, especially in this business because the next horse could be the big one,'' Violette said.