ELMONT, N.Y. -- In the past five weeks, Rick Violette has spent much of his time nursing a horse's injured ankle and quarelling with government bureaucrats.
In between, he's developed Citadeed into the horse who is given the best chance -- but still not much of one -- to upset D. Wayne Lukas' powerful duo of Timber Country and Thunder Gulch in tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.
Looking for an Oliver's Twist-type long shot to wedge in exactas between the Lukas favorites?
Consider Citadeed, who stepped off a plane from England in near obscurity before the Kentucky Derby, was withdrawn from the Preakness because of a nasty-looking ankle abscess and has now suddenly emerged as a Belmont contender.
Track oddsmaker Don La Place, who made Preakness winner Timber Country the 6-5 favorite and Kentucky Derby victor Thunder Gulch the 2-1 second pick in the 12-horse Belmont field, said Citadeed is his third choice.
In his odds line, however, La Place ranked him fourth behind Star Standard. "I don't really like that horse," La Place said about Star Standard, who is trained by popular New York-based trainer Nick Zito. "I put him third because of Zito and all the hype he gets."
Added retired jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who is now a trainer and attended yesterday's Belmont Stakes post position draw: "I can't see anybody beating the Lukas horses. Beyond them, the only thing I can see is Citadeed finishing third."
Even though the Lukas horses drew outside posts, the trainer wasn't concerned. "In a 1 1/2 -mile race, there should be enough time for jockeys to get good position," Lukas said.
The horse hurt most by the draw? Star Standard, the likely pacesetter, who drew 12.
It's Citadeed, in the 1 post, who could get the first call. "But we're going to settle after the first eighth [of a mile] and let someone else go to the front," Violette said.
How has Citadeed's career turned around so dramatically in the brief Triple Crown time span of 35 days?
Lots of luck and quick work by Violette, who had never seen the horse until he saddled him on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Since then, the Citadeed scenario has been a roller coaster ride.
Ivan Allen, who owns the colt, actually lives in Hong Kong, but travels the world in search of promising horseflesh. He was attracted to Citadeed two years ago at the Saratoga, N.Y., yearling sales, purchased him for $80,000 and sent him to his English trainer, Peter Chapple-Hyam.
After a third-place finish in the European Free Handicap at Newmarket in April, Allan decided to send Citadeed to the Kentucky Derby. However, Allen and Chapple-Hyam apparently thought so little of the horse's chances that neither showed up to watch him run.
Instead, Allan had deputized Violette, whom he had met in Hong Kong last fall, to look after Citadeed and possibly keep him in the States if he ran well.
In the Derby, Citadeed broke from the 19 post, showed considerable pluck by stalking the quick pace set by Serena's Song, ranged into contention on the final turn, but then flattened out in the stretch and finished ninth.
"But the thing we liked is that of all the horses that tracked the speed that day, he held on best. It showed he belonged and had a lot of quality," Violette said.
But then, plans unravelled.
Sent to Pimlico for the Preakness, Citadeed developed an abcess that caused his ankle to swell grotesquely. Violette spent his time in Baltimore soaking the horse's leg in an ice tub and on the phone with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, who rTC wanted the colt returned to England.
"We had been given a permit to run the horse strictly in the three Triple Crown races," Violette said. "When he missed the Preakness -- although his injury proved, luckily, to be short-lived once the abcess broke and there was instant relief -- I wanted to try for the Belmont, but give him a race in between.
"The USDA had other plans. They wanted him sent back to
England. One veterinarian even referred to the Preakness incident as a "supposed injury." I told him: " 'I have the whole episode on video and if you want documentary proof, read the Baltimore Sun.' "
The USDA allowed the horse to stay and run in the Peter Pan
Stakes at Belmont two weeks ago. After showing speed in the race, Citadeed dropped back, prompting Violette to think that the "European bounce" factor had taken effect. Normally, foreign horses shipping to the U.S. run well in their first start, but need a long time afterward that to acclimatize themselves.
But then, Citadeed rallied in the stretch and won the Peter Pan.
That effort prompted the horse's Belmont appeal.
"I like that he's won over the track," La Place said.
Added Violette: "I think after all he's been through -- crossing the Atlantic, incurring an injury, running two hard races and shipping to three different tracks in five weeks-- and that he still trains and looks as good as he does, shows he's an exceptional horse.
"There might be some question of his breeding [by Shadeed, a sire of milers] showing he can get the 1 1/2 miles, but the same thing was said before Hansel won [in 1991]. Everyone said no son of Woodman could get 1 1/2 miles. But he did. To a certain extent, Citadeed, too, is writing his own pedigree."
Has the hassle of the last five weeks been worth it?
"You must be kidding," Violette said. "That's why we [trainers] work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We tread water until we get lucky and come up with a runner like this. When you lead a horse over to a race like the Belmont, those are the kinds of days you dream about."
When: Tomorrow, 5:32 p.m.
TV: Chs. 2, 7, 4:30 p.m.
Purse: $697,400 (winner earns $418,440)
Distance: 1 1/2 miles