10/14/2009 11:00PM

Opening her own doors

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Linda Rice works on Mother Russia, one of her meet-best 20 winners at Saratoga.

The numbers hung like rope.

On the second-to-last day of the Saratoga meet, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's Winthrop House nosed out favorite Echo in Eternity, trained by Todd Pletcher, in a turf claimer. The program numbers went up on the toteboard, but the mutuel prices failed to appear, the official sign failed to light.

Minutes passed. No inquiry, no claim of foul, no problems, just not official. The crowd around the big screen in the clubhouse milled around. Waiting. Some milled more intensely than others.

Linda Rice, assistants Samantha Randazzo and Josie Palmisano, and other members of Team Rice fidgeted and grumbled. Their horses finished fourth and fifth, but they desperately wanted this race chalked up and put away, moving them one race closer to the trainer title.

After six weeks of racing six days a week and working seven days a week, they led the powerhouse Pletcher barn by one win. Pletcher eyed his seventh Saratoga title, Rice was looking for her first. Luck had gone her way most of the meet - Pletcher finished with 28 seconds, Rice finished with four. Rice had hung around for six weeks, winning turf sprints, New York-bred races and anything she could, until, "Whoa, we could win this thing."

Still, she needed Pletcher to lose this photo.

A racing acquaintance leaned into the Rice camp and said, "They're protesting the photo."

The Rice crew whipped around like a firing squad.

"They're what?"

Team Rice nearly headed to the stewards stand until the acquaintance with an ill-timed sense of humor had to confess he was kidding, simply to quell the uprising.

"That's not funny."

"Come on, it was a little funny."

"It's not funny."

Rice, reared on the racetrack, knows you can't protest a photo, but when you're clinging to a one-win lead in the standings, with a card and a half left to run to win your first Saratoga title - the first Saratoga title for a female trainer - your sense of humor is the first thing to go.

Rice was out of clean clothes. She needed a manicure and, after getting stepped on in the paddock, had been nursing an infected foot for which she had to go to the hospital twice a day to get intravenous antibiotics. She had spent hours each day working the condition book trying to get the most out of a little - she saddled 60 fewer horses than Pletcher.

She was saying it's great to get this close, but she was thinking she might not ever get this close again.

She needed that title.

"By the end of the meet, I was exhausted, my help was exhausted," Rice said. "That's okay. That's part of the process, and those are the choices you make to get there. If you don't make those choices, you don't get there.

"We hadn't really made a lot of plans as far as getting home from Saratoga," she said. "My crew asked me, 'What are we going to do about shipping home?' I said, 'We're not. I don't care if it takes us three weeks to ship out of here, we're just getting to Monday.' That's all."

Monday came.

Stewards made the race official, moving Rice one step closer to the most coveted meet title in the sport. She got her title, finally decided when Pletcher failed to win the Hopeful, the second-to-last race of the meet.

Rice watched for Pletcher in the Hopeful. Dublin, who was broken by her brother Bryan and trained by family friend Wayne Lukas, won the Hopeful to secure the title. Rice could finally exhale.


Until then, Linda Rice had thought a Saratoga title was a big deal to Linda Rice and only Linda Rice. She'd thought she was the only one counting.

"I don't know if the racing community will ever have as much fun and as much excitement over a Saratoga title as I got to witness over this one," she said. "I was amazed how many people knew it was a significant moment, the defining moment. I watched the race in the boxes and walked down to the winner's circle. My phone was ringing, people were cheering. I can't tell you anything that happened after that."

After the Hopeful, the New York Racing Association presented Rice with the leading trainer award. NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward hugged her and said, "Linda, this is a very big deal."

With a horse to saddle in the last race, Rice glided into the paddock for the finale, a New York-bred turf sprint, and was greeted by friends, peers, competitors, and fans. They cheered her. She smiled, hugged a few allies, waved, nodded, finally free. She fled to the saddling stalls to call her dad.

Then she cried.

"The most amazing thing was the effect, the reaction of the entire racing community," she said. "Maybe because people know I didn't start a year or two ago and get lucky, that I've worked very hard, that I didn't get anything handed to me. Everybody was rooting for me and took great enjoyment watching the whole thing.

"To walk in there, to be competing in a race with a 12-horse field and have everybody excited about something that happened to me - we're all going to compete against each other in the last race, and that's irrelevant. They're genuinely happy and rooting for me. That's special."

Rice, 45, got the job done, just like she has since she started running her dad's operation at Penn National when she was in high school.

She calls herself "a stayer." Her assistant calls her "relentless, driven." Her brother Bryan calls her "one tough cookie - I mean one tough cookie."

Being a woman in a man's world is the only position Rice knows, so she accepts it and moves forward. She doesn't want to hear it won't work, she wants to hear how it will work. She's a walking inspirational message: The harder I work, the luckier I get. I came to two paths in the woods, I chose the one less traveled.

"I wouldn't know it any other way," she said. "I've only been batting from one side of the cage. My father said when I was 17 that the doors would open quicker if I was one of his sons. Might be true, might not. Listen, this is where I am, this is what I've got to work with, and this is where I'm going.

"That's all I know," Rice said. "If I was somebody that didn't have that attitude, I would stay home. If they tell you how many hurdles you may or may not get over and it demoralizes you, then you're not getting anywhere, anyway. Any business. I don't want to hear all the ways it can't be done. Figure it out. Hard work."

Rice decided to be a horse trainer early. She told her dad so.

He told her he didn't know a successful woman trainer who was also successfully married. She told him she would open her own doors, and she would be the first to master both training and marriage.

They've never talked about it since.

Clyde Rice, 72, taught school in Wisconsin. On the side, he would buy horses, break them, and sell them. He and Lukas loved the game, and both swapped teaching for training. Rice packed his wife and their four kids to Waterford Park (now Mountaineer) in the early 1970s and then moved to Penn National when it first opened.

Clyde Rice could outwork any mule, and he taught his children the same ethic. Curt and Wayne Rice became jockeys. Linda Rice galloped horses, ran the barn, ponied her dad's horses at night.

Nobody could outwork the Rice family.

Clyde Rice sent his daughter to Penn State, where she lasted two years before coming home and marrying jockey David Appleby. She took some horses for her dad and made them win, earning her first career victory in 1987. The marriage failed, but her fishing line was in the pond, and it wasn't coming out. She took some horses for her dad to Garden State Park, worked the New Jersey circuit, and then made the move to New York.

Rice remembers the day, Dec. 7, 1991. She sat in the Dunkin' Donuts across Hempstead Avenue, waiting for her nine horses to show up so she could officially declare she had made it to New York. Some trip - Wisconsin to West Virginia to Pennsylvania to New Jersey and then New York.

"I chose to go to New York and stay in New York," Rice said. "I'm not one that gets discouraged. I don't have a lot of quit in me. That's from my father, three older brothers. A good night's sleep, get up the next morning, and it's a new day. Figure out a way to make it go the right direction. I'm big on making your own luck."

Her numbers suffered, going from 28 wins and over $1 million in earnings in 1991 to 10 wins and $276,782 in 1993. She gradually turned it around, utilizing a string at Monmouth and Belmont Park. Double Booked won the Bernard Baruch in 1991. Things Change gave Rice her first Grade 1 stakes victory when she won the Spinaway in 1998. Rice won her second Grade 1 with Tenski in the Queen Elizabeth II at Keeneland a month later.

City Zip swept all three 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga in 2000.

Three years ago, she reinvented herself again, sending her second string to Saratoga instead of Monmouth Park. With the move, she began to concentrate on buying New York-breds, buying affordable weanlings instead of banging her head against bigger budgets at the 2-year-old sales. She uses spreadsheets and analyzes every number from her stats, to the price of hay. She did the math at Saratoga - her 20 wins at this year's meet resulted from total purchase prices of $885,000.

Rice said she is thinking about sending a string to California for the winter to spread out her turf horses - 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill, look out.

She still talks numbers with her dad, who was king of numbers when he trained. Clyde Rice has recognized that his daughter has kicked down any doors that wouldn't open. As for being the first female trainer to be successfully married, they don't talk about that.

It would be tough to be married to Linda Rice.

"You have to invest a lot of yourself in the business in order to do it successfully. It's very hard," Linda Rice said. "It's not the path I chose. I love training horses. I was married when I was 23, and it didn't work out.

"I tried it, and I'm not saying I won't try it again."

The bitter truth is not that a man trains a horse better than a woman, it's that a man can have a family and train horses. Todd Pletcher works as hard as Rice and has a wife and three children. If Rice had three children, who's to say she would have been leading trainer at Saratoga?

Clyde and Jean Rice moved to Ocala to break and develop young horses.

Linda's brothers Bryan, Curt, Wayne, and their families moved there, as well. The only one truly out of the nest is Linda, the baby girl. No children, no husband, a barn full of runners, and a Saratoga title. She owns a quaint two-story house on a quaint street just on the other side of the Belmont Park pony track.

"Oh yeah, she's happy," Bryan Rice said. "Once in a while, she'll call up, and she'll need a sounding board. We'll talk. Maybe things aren't going the way she wants, or maybe she's missing family, or maybe she's concerned about Mom or Dad. There's a side to her we get to see occasionally, but most of the time, she's really doing well with her endeavors, and we get to watch from the sidelines and cheer for her."

About 10 years ago, Bryan and Holley Rice bought a vacation house on Island Lake, 10 miles from their farm. It's nothing special, a place for fun, family, no stress. The Rices spend every free moment during the summer at the lake.

Linda Rice has been there a few times. That's all.

"I make sure she knows she needs to come," Bryan Rice said. "I was taken by how much fun she had. People you see in their business suits and in the paddock saddling their horses and doing the correct thing in terms of interviews, giving instructions, talking to the customers, running a business - you see them in a T-shirt and shorts jumping in the water, laying out for a bump playing volleyball, that's a different spot for them."

By the end of the Saratoga meet, Rice was in a different spot. She lowered her guard and actually confessed to watching the standings and wanting the title. Sure, she was out of clothes, needed that manicure and was tired, but she was enjoying the ride, relishing the atmosphere of good, old-fashioned competition. It was different territory.

"As a woman, to get anywhere in this business, frankly, you have to have a pretty tough edge on you in order to get the job done, which I've done over the years," Rice said. "Unfortunately, that can be interpreted as hard, cold, stern, stoic, bitch, whatever you want to call it, and you're going to get that, too, but if you want to get anything done, you have to have a little bit of edge on you. Man or woman, but more so as a woman."

That edge started to dull during Saratoga 2009 as Rice watched the racing community rally around a race and root for her to upset the status quo of Pletcher, McLaughlin or Bill Mott. Nothing against any of the men, but they have Saratoga titles. People like firsts, especially by a woman who knows no boundaries to work.

"I would like people to know there's a softer side to me," she said. "I am human. A lot of times I suppress that, but I'm not going to put up some front and act like it wasn't a big deal to me. It was a big deal for me. It's very meaningful. It took a long time coming, and we've invested a lot of time and energy, both personally and professionally, in it, so it's a big deal. There will never be a first again. This is a one-time deal.

"There will never be a first for a woman, and there will never be a first for me again. You can't ever get that moment back."

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* David Grening on Rajiv Maragh's great season under the radar

* Marty McGee on the prestige of the QE II Cup

* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes