Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each week in this spot we’ll present the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that will stand out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it will generate.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week’s story, it’s about a Grade 1-winning gelding, two men who courageously fought a life-threatening disease, and a rainbow.
There’s an old belief that a rainbow in the sky is a sign of good luck and fortune. That may or may not be true, but racing has rarely seen a moment as befitting of those multi-colored bands in the sky than after Saturday’s 91st edition of the $1.2 million Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.
A meteorologist will explain that the rainbow stemmed from lightning and a torrential downpour that delayed the start of the Whitney – and television coverage of it – by 41 minutes and the sunshine that quickly followed it. You could say it was simply the reflection and refraction of water droplets in the air by the sun.
Yet a powerful case can be made that its presence above the winner’s circle was for one of the owners and the trainer of Diversify, the gelding who was the star of the show in the Whitney.
Yet that unusually long bond between an owner and a trainer contains something even more powerful and binding than victories on a racetrack. Only three years ago, both Ralph Evans and Violette had surgery for lung cancer – and now, with that hideous disease in check, each of them has a greater appreciation for life and grand moments like Saturday when their horse captured one the sport’s premier dirt races for older horses.
It wasn’t the first taste of Grade 1 success for them with Diversify. Last fall, their gelding emerged as a force in the older horse division when he captured the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup by a length over Keen Ice at Belmont Park.
Saturday was more about reconfirming Diversify’s stature in the division through his front-running 3 ½-length romp in the slop over another superb New York State-bred, Mind Your Biscuits, and giving Violette and Evans another giant-sized dose of pleasure in their life and making them all the more appreciative of everyone who helped them survive and endure such a desperate battle with a loathsome disease.
“Having Diversify in my life has helped me,” Violette told BloodHorse prior to the Whitney. “Being able to pay the medical bills is terrific, but to be honest, ever since this ordeal started I’ve been surrounded by dozens of very good, kind, thoughtful people who care for me. Diversify has been terrific but it’s not a need. What you need are very good friends to get through something like this and it’s all been very good on that front. There have been some bad moments but it’s been rewarding and surprising to see how many people have come out of the woodwork to have my back.
“There are no small things in these situations,” added Violette, whose illness started at a time when he held the demanding job of president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, a position where pleasing everyone is often an impossible dream. “A kind word at the right time is enormous. My assistant trainer, Melissa Cohen, has been a godsend. She would pick me up and carry me to bed when things got rough. I never had to worry about the barn when she was around. She’s been spectacular. And there have been so many others. I couldn’t name all the people who have been so very helpful.”
Evans had many of the same strong feelings, especially about the 65-year-old Violette.
“We’ve become more than just owner and trainer,” said the 80-year-old resident of Greenwich, Conn., “We’ve become family. We’ve been through the ups and downs together and he and I have been on the same page in terms of our illnesses so we can support each other.”
Since Diversify won the Suburban Stakes earlier in the year and he moved up to the No. 3 spot in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll after his triumph at the Spa, that rainbow might also have been for fans who long to see more of the game’s stars.
As a gelding, Diversify will continue to race for as long as he is sound and able to compete at a high level.
After he makes a bid for back-to-back wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup this October, the Breeders’ Cup Classic is surely in the picture for Diversify. The Whitney was a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Classic, earning Diversify an all-expenses paid spot in the field for the $6 million race at Churchill Downs on Nov. 3. Evans has some reservations about running at the Louisville track since Diversify was fourth there as a 7-5 favorite in the Clark Handicap last year, and since another of his horses, Upstart, finished 18th in the 2015 Kentucky Derby. He also decided against accepting an automatic spot in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Yet last year’s reluctance was based on having to ship across the country to face Gun Runner and Arrogate, among others. As Violette said, “One of the things that Ralph and Lauren are keen on is having (Diversify) around for a couple of years. They don’t want to run him just for the sake of running him, and I couldn’t envision a way to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. With Gun Runner in there and a lot of other speed in the race, it would have been nice to go out there, but the right thing was to skip the race.”
This time around, if all goes well in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, there could be 180-degree change in perception. In the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic, it could be Diversify who frightens other connections.
Time will indeed tell, yet on Saturday under the rainbow there was a very revealing moment about Diversify’s future and what it can mean for the sport. While Evans talked about the future races for his gelding, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup were all mentioned. Yet the one race that brought a radiant smile to his face was the Dubai World Cup in March 2019. That was the one that intrigued him the most.
Now think about that for a moment. A gelding in the Dubai World Cup who will then return to the United States to complete his 6-year-old campaign, and just maybe he might do it all over again at seven. Imagine that.
There’s no other way to look it at. That rainbow was indeed a sign of good fortune for Ralph Evans and Rick Violette and the sport they and so many others love.
Here’s some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: