LOUISVILLE — Trainer Rick Violette Jr. isn't one to seek out omens. But the flight that delivered his Kentucky Derby hopeful, Samraat, from New York to Louisville on Monday was just the latest freakishly smooth step in what can be a pitfall-laden journey.
"It was like he was beamed here, five hours stall to stall," Violette said outside Churchill Downs' Barn 28 on Tuesday morning. "It's just worked out for this horse. ... just everything."
Trainers often talk about how little wiggle room exists for setbacks when trying to develop a horse into a classic contender. Six starts into his career and days out from Thoroughbred racing's defining 10-furlong test, Samraat has quietly amassed a record that is the most absent of miscues of any horse in the Kentucky Derby field.
Prior to running second to fellow Derby hopeful Wicked Strong in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, My Meadowview Farm's homebred Samraat was flawless with wins in five starts including victories in the Grade III Withers and Gotham Stakes.
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Though the New York-bred son of Noble Causeway suffered his first career loss in the 11⁄8-mile Wood Memorial, Violette saw what he needed that day to boost his faith for the Kentucky Derby.
"He's run six times and one horse has beaten him. I'll take that anywhere," said Violette, who saddled his only prior Kentucky Derby contender, Read the Footnotes, to a seventh-place finish in 2004. "Even that race (the Wood) he went through a couple inter-race schooling victories. He had never been surrounded before ... that was the first time he had horses in front of him and behind him and beside him and he handled that well.
"He's literally done everything we've asked, sometimes things just work out. We got lucky enough after he broke his maiden to get an allowance race to go at 71/2 furlongs and then he gets his first two-turn experience in a couple of the open races. Everything kind of has worked out from Day One."
Described by Violette as a bit of a "nervous nelly" when he came to him from owner Leonard Reggio's Long Island-based farm, Samraat has gone from a precocious talent who just ran his rivals off their feet to one of the more battle-tested contenders in this Derby field.
His first three starts as a juvenile saw the dark bay colt win by a combined margin of 253/4 lengths, including a 163/4-length domination in the Damon Runyan Stakes at Aqueduct on Dec. 18.
In his season debut in the Withers Stakes, Samraat and Uncle Sigh matched strides almost the entire 11⁄16 miles before Samraat edged clear inside the eighth pole. The Grade III Gotham a month later confirmed Samraat as a burgeoning street fighter as he emerged victorious in a three-horse throw-down in the stretch among himself, Uncle Sigh and In Trouble along the rail.
"He doesn't lose a dogfight," Violette said. "In the photo on the cover of the Blood-Horse from the Gotham, we're maybe a head in front ... and the jock (Jose Ortiz) has a big grin. His stick is still turned down, he didn't hit him in the Gotham and he had the two of them inside him and he knew he had them nailed. He was already smiling before he got to the wire."
While likely Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome has become the poster child for the California breeding program, Samraat's success is the culmination of years of perseverance by Riggio.
When Samraat fought off fellow New York-bred Uncle Sigh to win the Withers, it marked the first graded stakes victory for Riggio — the founder and chairman of Barnes & Noble — after years of building up his breeding program with several high-profile purchases at public auction.
Violette has been one of the most devoted and outspoken figures on the New York racing circuit. The Massachusetts native is president of the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association, is a member of the NYRA Board of Directors, and has been at the forefront of the battle for uniform medication rules and horsemen's issues — even if it doesn't always make him a popular figure among racing's hierarchy.
"Somebody has to do it," Violette said of his willingness to take on some of the industry's touchiest subjects. "And, frankly, I don't have a family to worry about. I can eat ketchup soup for a year and nobody has to know about it. Some guys have to put kids through college and high school and take care of that. They have to maybe not ruffle feathers and worry about (getting) their stalls. And I can take liberties they may not be able to take."
Violette is being just as diligent in fixing the few screws that need tightening on Samraat. He has zeroed in on getting the colt to switch leads in the stretch, with hopes that too will come around as smoothly as the rest of Samraat's development.
"I don't think we can win the race on the left lead, it gets too tiring," Violette said. "If you wait too late up the lane (to ask for the lead change) then they get really tired and you have to throw them down and you lose all kinds of momentum.
"He is a really ridable horse, a jockey can do anything, he can send him hard out of the gate and then go into neutral. That's invaluable in a race like the Derby."