With the finish line nearing in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, trainer Rick Violette liked what he was seeing. His horse, Read the Footnotes, was in a perfect striking position, striding comfortably. And his jockey hadn’t yet moved a knuckle to demand more.
Violette could all but smell the roses that awaited the winner.
“The hair stood on the back of my neck,” Violette recalled.
But in the final half mile, Read the Footnotes slowed as Smarty Jones dashed under the wire first. It turned out that Read the Footnotes sustained a knee injury and never raced again.
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“His knee got him beat, which was a shame,” the trainer said.
Violette has his fingers crossed that his latest 3-year-old charge — Upstart — delivers the winning performance that eluded Read the Footnotes come the May 6 Derby.
The New York-bred colt could take another step in that direction in Saturday’s $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Fountain of Youth is a traditional mile marker on the road to the Triple Crown, and Upstart, coming off an impressive victory last month in the Holy Bull Stakes, is favored to return to the winner’s circle.
“We ran fast four weeks ago,” Violette said of Upstart’s 5 1/2-length victory in the Holy Bull. “He’s ready to run fast again.”
Even though Violette said Upstart is an intelligent horse, he’s taking no chances with any unforeseen mishaps. He shipped the horse to Gulfstream on Thursday from his training headquarters in Boynton Beach just to have him stand in the paddock and acclimate to the surroundings. He also intended to put him on a van and give him a “ride to nowhere,” just to get used to the experience. He will be vanning down to Hallandale Beach on race day.
“We just put him on the van for 45 minutes or an hour,” Violette said. “You don’t want to go, ‘I wish, I coulda, shoulda.’ You do it all before and live with what happens afterward.”
Violette said, though, that Upstart doesn’t require a lot of fiddling.
“Trainers are always tempted to tinker,” he said. “We’re always tinkering. He’s doing so good, there isn’t much to tinker with.”
The other day, Violette said Upstart was out for his morning training regimen when horses sprang out of a nearby starting gate. They thought the noise might startle Upstart.
“He didn’t pay any attention,” Violette said. “There was a bird flying above, and he looked at the bird. He could care less about the gate and the clatter and the bell, and all that stuff.”
A field of seven challengers are set to take on Upstart in the 1 1/16-mile event, a prelude to the Florida Derby in March. Chief among those is Frosted, the horse that ran second to Upstart in the Holy Bull as the 3-2 favorite.
The top four finishers from the Holy Bull are entered.
For Upstart to prevail again, Violette said: “He doesn’t have to run his A game. He doesn’t have to run his A-plus-plus game. We’re in a good spot with a very talented horse that’s doing well.”
The goal is to not only win on Saturday but also to continue winning all the way to the Kentucky Derby and beyond.
“It’s the first Saturday in May and onward,” Violette said. “The career doesn’t end after the first Saturday in May. There’s a race [Preakness] two weeks later, and three weeks after that [Belmont Stakes]. It’s a long year. It’s February and you’re trying to leave some juice in the lemon.”
For Violette, a dream scenario would be for Upstart to wind up in the same threatening position Read the Footnotes was in 11 years ago. It’s the outcome that he wishes to be different.
“If you can get me to the half-mile pole in that frame, with a jockey that hasn’t asked him to run yet, I’ll sign up for it today and just depend on the health of the horse from the half-mile pole home,” Violette said. “I’ll take that any day.”