05/15/2014 8:17AM

Rice claims her way into a classic

Barbara D. Livingston
Linda Rice has a stable of 50 horses, with 36 stabled at Belmont Park and 14 at Aqueduct.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Linda Rice’s purpose for being in Maryland this week is two-fold. The first, naturally, is to run Kid Cruz in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The second is to work the sales grounds at nearby Timonium in search of the next big horse.

Rice, 50, has spent a good portion of her adult life at horse auctions, more often than not watching others buy the horses she wanted but could not afford. Over the last few years, Rice has come up with a Plan B: the claim box.

Rice has stepped up her claiming action considerably. In 2011, Rice made 35 claims. In 2012, it grew to 68. Last year, Rice made 87 claims including that of Kid Cruz, whom she took for $50,000 out of a maiden race on Nov. 22 at Aqueduct.

“Oftentimes when you go to the auctions – which I’ve spent a lifetime doing – it can be a pretty frustrating game because you go there and you find horses you like, pedigrees you like, and you just can’t get them bought,” Rice said on a recent morning at her home base at Belmont Park. “The sales have been so competitive and that’s been very frustrating to me. So in response to that frustration, I started working the claim box and the claiming end of it.”

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Like with all claims, there is success and failure. Palace, whom Rice claimed for $20,000 in November 2012, has won 7 of 13 starts since, including the Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap. He has earned $552,050 for her and owner Antonino Miuccio. Kid Cruz, who Rice claimed for Steven Brandt and Richard Boylan’s Vina Del Mar Thoroughbreds, has won the Private Terms and Federico Tesio from three starts. Rice won a New York-bred stakes with Freud’s Notebook one start after claiming her for $35,000.

Some claims that did not work out include Arch Traveler, who Rice took for $50,000 in Feb. 2013 and who, in his third start since, won a $5,000 claimer at Finger Lakes. Hidden Music, a $65,000 claim, and Excess Liquidity, a $40,000 claim, have both managed to win one race, each a $16,000 claimer.

“I’ve spent the last three years doing a lot more claiming and perfecting my skill, as you would say,” Rice said. “Still got a lot to learn there, but it’s gotten to where I’m pretty comfortable claiming, enjoy it, have had quite a few success stories.”

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Rice, a native of Racine, Wisconsin, herself has been a success story. The lone daughter among four children of Clyde and Jean Rice, Linda was destined to end up in racing. Clyde Rice was a successful trainer in Pennsylvania and Linda’s brothers all were involved in the game. Brian Rice runs Woodside Ranch in Ocala, Fla. Wayne Rice has a farm in Ocala and runs horses at Presque Isle Downs in the summer. Curt Rice, at age 16, was the leading apprentice jockey in the country. He now manages his parent’s farm.

Rice said her family made her go to college. She studied computer science at Penn State for two years before returning to the track.

In 27 years as a trainer, Rice, through Tuesday, has won 1,228 races and her horses have earned $42.9 million in purse money, making her the most successful female trainer in purse money won in North America.

“They didn’t discourage me from anything, they just wanted me to go to school,” Rice said. “My father always told me it’d be a lot easier if I was one of his sons, but you know I’m still here.”

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Clyde Rice, 76, said he hasn’t been surprised by his daughter’s success, which includes 30 graded stakes victories, four in Grade 1 races.

“She’s been a student of racing ever since high school,” he said. “It’s been a long road to hoe, but she’s hoed it. She never wanted to rely on just being a woman trainer. She puts her horses out there just like anybody else. I’m proud of her. She’s going to go after it with both barrels.”

After beginning her career at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Rice has been in New York for the last two decades. Last year, Rice won a personal-best 102 races, 90 of which came on the New York Racing Association circuit, ranking her fourth in wins.

Rice has won four training titles on the NYRA circuit, including the 2009 Saratoga meeting, becoming the first female trainer to win a title at that prestigious meeting.

“To show up here in New York as a young trainer and get myself in position to win training titles at all three venues has been a big accomplishment and the next one is to get to the Triple Crown races,” Rice said.

Technically, Kid Cruz is not Rice’s first starter in a Triple Crown race, but in reality he is. Rice is listed as the trainer of Supervisor for the 2003 Belmont, but she was doing her father a favor. Clyde Rice had broken the horse for owner Rodney Lundock and after the horse ran third in the Peter Pan for trainer Manny Tortora, Lundock left the horse with Rice to run in the Belmont, where he finished fifth behind winner Empire Maker.

The closest Rice previously came to the Triple Crown races was in 1997 with The Silver Move, who had won the 1996 Remsen Stakes, but who had foot issues at 3. City Zip, arguably the best horse Rice trained, swept the trio of graded stakes for juveniles at Saratoga in 2000, but he had distance limitations.

“He was really cut out to be a great sprinter and he was a terrific 2-year-old because of it,” Rice said.

Rice maintains a string of 50 horses, 36 at Belmont and 14 at Aqueduct. Though she found Kid Cruz and others via the claim box, Rice said she is looking to reduce her quantity and concentrate on quality. On Wednesday it was announced Rice would train horses for a syndicate of mostly female investors led by Sheila Rosenblum, a former model.

In Kid Cruz, Rice believes she has a horse that has natural distance ability. While Rice is here for the Preakness, she really has her eye on the Belmont Stakes, run at 1 1/2 miles, three weeks from now.

“I’m not so sure I would not rather take those horses on in the Belmont because I think there’s a good chance Kid Cruz will get the mile and a half and there’s a good chance all the others will struggle with it,” Rice said. “I would almost prefer to go into the Belmont without going to Pimlico, but as far as from a fitness standpoint, I think he needs to race.”