The bug bit him early, sometime in his 14th year. “We were driving back from the World’s Fair in Montreal, my parents and I, when we stopped at this dude ranch-type place, somewhere in upstate New York. They were offering pony rides for kids. Well, I got on and rode one, half an hour or so. And that was all it took.”
Rick Violette Jr. ’75 bought his first horse two years later, for $400, with money earned on his paper route in Lowell. Three years after that, as a sophomore at ULowell, he was juggling his class schedule around the Tuesdays and Thursdays he spent mucking out stalls and galloping horses at Suffolk Downs in Revere. He hasn't looked back since.
“I majored in political science, and once in a while I’d think about being a lawyer,” says Rick, “but I always pretty much knew I’d end up doing something with horses. It was just inside me by then.”
He got his first trainer’s license at Suffolk Downs not long after graduation. Three years later, he moved to Woodbine Race Track in Canada as an assistant to a thoroughbred trainer. He was back in the U.S. two years later, this time as a back-up to trainer David Whitely.
By 1983, just 30 years old, Rick had his own stable of horses in New York. Today, he is among the top trainers in the U.S., with more than 4,400 races behind him and winnings of $32 million. In 2012 alone, his horses won 38 races (out of 178 starts) and earned more than $2.4 million in purses.
The political science degree paid off too. Just ask the hundreds of riders injured on the track every year, who owe much of their care to his efforts as co-founder of the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund; or the grooms, exercise riders, stall muckers and other low-paid—mostly immigrant—backstretch workers whose childcare, language training and family visits via Skype have resulted from his work, over the past 12 years, as president of the National Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.
His success with much of this, he says, can be traced to his days at UMass Lowell, and to the efforts of two faculty members in particular: political science professors Joyce Denning and Dean Bergeron (both today emeritus professors), who understood his goals.
“They went out of their way, both of them, to make sure I got the education I needed, while also having the time to scrub out dirty stalls,” Rick says. I've never thanked them properly—and I’m not sure I could find the words to thank them today. But I’ll be forever grateful for that.”