09/09/2009 11:00PM

Condition book played to Rice's strength


NEW YORK - Linda Rice winning the training title at the 36-day Saratoga meet that concluded Monday was remarkable on several counts. She became the first woman to win that title at Saratoga or any other major American meet, and her 20 victories edged out a trio of far more renowned and well-stocked stables, those trained by Todd Pletcher (19 winners), Bill Mott (18), and Steve Asmussen (13).

Perhaps most remarkable, though, is how Rice's title so perfectly reflects how New York racing and the Saratoga meeting in particular have changed in just the last five years. This does not denigrate her achievement at all; in fact, it shows how cannily she has adapted a modest racing operation to capitalize on an almost radically different racing program.

The Saratoga meet has always been best known for championship-caliber graded stakes racing, and that hasn't changed. The highlights of this year's meeting were Rachel Alexandra's historic Woodward victory, and dominant triumphs by Summer Bird in the Travers, Icon Project in the Personal Ensign, and Careless Jewel in the Alabama. It's the rest of the daily programs that are almost unrecognizable when compared to a decade ago.

Open allowance and claiming races, and two-turn races on the dirt, are harder and harder to fill, even with a generous incentive program that boosts the purses for such events. The most significant changes have been an emphasis on turf racing, particularly turf sprints, and the addition of almost-daily ungraded stakes races in the place of high-level allowance races. Rice's 2009 Saratoga was built on these kinds of races:

* This year, for the first time, more than half of all Saratoga races were carded for the grass - 195 of 365 races. All 20 of Rice's winners were in races scheduled for the grass; she won two on the dirt that were rained off the turf. In races carded for the dirt, she was 0 for 12.

* Turf sprints, which did not exist at Saratoga six years ago, now make up nearly 15 percent of all Saratoga races. Eleven of Rice's 20 victories were in turf sprints, all of which are run at just 5 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga.

* While there are 34 graded stakes races during the 36-day meeting, there are now also more than 20 ungraded races, many of them unscheduled overnight races referred to by cynical horsemen and handicappers as "fake stakes." Rice made only two starts in graded stakes at Saratoga this year, finishing off the board with longshots, but won six statebred or ungraded stakes - the Humphrey Finney, Lena Spencer, Quick Call, Troy, New York Stallion Stakes, and Peerless Springs.

Her record of 20 winners from 75 starters equates to a higher winning percentage than Pletcher (19 for 135), Mott (18 for 88), or Asmussen (13 for 59), but the composition of those trainers' winners was markedly different.

Pletcher had 14 dirt victories, five grass victories, and won three graded dirt stakes with Game Face (Honorable Miss), Interactif (With Anticipation), and Quality Road (Amsterdam). Mott won 12 grass races but only two sprints, and won graded turf stakes with Al Khali (Saranac), Courageous Cat (Hall of Fame) and Mushka (Glens Falls). Twelve of Asmussen's 13 winners were on the dirt, including four graded stakes with Hot Dixie Chick (Schuylerville and Spinaway), Kensei (Jim Dandy) and Rachel Alexandra (Woodward).

While Rice topped the leaderboard in victories, she ranked only seventh in purse earnings with $786,493 at the meet, behind Asmussen ($1.48 million), Pletcher ($1.45 million). Mott ($1.13 million), Graham Motion ($1.02 million), Saeed bin Suroor ($994,514), and Kiaran McLaughlin ($807,779). Bin Suroor, the trainer of record for the Godolphin horses handled by Rick Mettee, may have had the most impressive record of all, winning with 8 of 14 starters, including the winners of the Go for Wand, Test, Victory Ride, and Ballerina and a winning but disqualified performance by Vineyard Haven in the King's Bishop.

Rice does not have access to the kind of horses bought by Godolphin or sent to Pletcher, Mott, and Asmussen, and won her title with a stable of just 50 runners, most of them five-digit purchases or homebreds. To win the Saratoga training title without the expensive 2-year-olds and stakes horses who run for the other top outfits would have been not only unthinkable but also impossible in the Saratoga of just a few years ago.