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Riggio, Violette and Samraat: A New York State of Mind

By John Scheinman | 06/05/2014 04:55 PM ET
PHOTO/Adam Coglianese

Leonard Riggio sat with trainer Rick Violette at the Belmont Stakes draw breakfast, looking like he was having the time of his life.

As chairman of Barnes & Noble, the largest bookseller in the world, and one of 16 members on the New York Racing Association Inc. (NYRA) Board of Directors, Riggio is a powerful player in the business and racing worlds. Yet, he is also a quintessential New Yorker - born in Little Italy, graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and NYU, and owner of My Meadowview Farm in Water Mill, N.Y.

Samraat, his 3-year-old entrant Saturday in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, is a great source of pride for him - as a racehorse and a New York homebred.

"I kidded with people: The knock on Samraat was he was a New York-bred, slightly built, a little toed out," Riggio said, warming to the story. "So I spoke to Samraat about it, and he said to me, 'Human beings are dumber than they think horses are.'

"He doesn't know about New York-bred. He looks to run. He says, 'Whoopee! I'm here!' As soon as he's on the track, he's happy."

So are Samraat's followers. The son of Noble Causeway, who was Riggio's first major purchase at auction and ran second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, opened his career with five straight wins, including scores in the Damon Runyon, Grade 3 Withers and Grade 3 Gotham this past winter at Aqueduct.

While the Withers and Gotham battles with Uncle Sigh were among the most exciting on this year's Triple Crown trail, Samraat proved he was the real deal with a tenacious second-place finish behind Wicked Strong in the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial. It was no surprise then when Samraat turned in an outstanding effort in the Kentucky Derby, running on well for a close-up fifth after being bumped at the start.

Samraat's winning streak stopped but not Riggio's enthusiasm.

"Finishing fifth isn't shabby," Riggio said. "You're talking about 19 of the best thoroughbreds in America. If you enter this game and you think coming in second is a defeat, you don't belong in the game. If you think coming in fifth in the Kentucky Derby is a defeat, you don't belong here."

Violette, thrilled with Samraat's training leading up to the Belmont, added, "We would have loved to have won. He ran his eyeballs out. We sleep well at night. You can't ask any more than for a horse to give his all. If they do that, then shame on you if you're not satisfied."

Violette was born in Worcester, Mass., but he makes his home in Mineola and has been winning stakes in New York since 1985. He is President of the National Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

He's taking his third shot at the Belmont, having finished third with Citadeed in 1995 and 10th with High Finance in 2006.

"If we could go back and remote-control change anything, we'd stay in neutral," Violette said. "There's nothing to change. He's trained great, he's eating well, he's moved well, he's happy, we're happy. It's been pretty cool. Things don't normally go this well. In the last breeze, it was a goose bump breeze. As easily as he accelerated, it's exactly how you want to come into a major race."

Riggio clearly enjoyed hearing all this. Asked if he has enough time to get into Violette's hair and be around Samraat, Riggio smiled.

"Not enough," he said.