07/21/2010 1:03PM

Rice out to repeat as top Saratoga trainer


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Everywhere Linda Rice goes, everybody wants to know one thing – can she do it again?

In 2009, Rice became the first female to win a trainer’s title at Saratoga – or any other top-level racetrack for that matter – when she beat the Goliath that is Todd Pletcher, 20-19. With the 142nd Saratoga meet set to begin Friday, Rice tries to remain practical when asked by fans and media whether she can repeat the achievement.

“It took 140 years for a woman to win a training title at Saratoga, what’s the likelihood of it happening again this year?” Rice said earlier this week. “Just take a look at the logistics of it – it’s pretty unlikely. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to try hard, and we’re going to try and win as many races as we can, which we always do every year that we’re there.”

Rice, 46, won the 2009 Saratoga title despite starting 60 fewer runners than Pletcher, who was compromised by a severe case of seconditis. Pletcher’s 28 second-place finishes were more than double Bill Mott’s 12, which was the next-highest figure. With 50 horses in her care, Rice had roughly one-quarter the size of Pletcher’s mammoth operation.

It was either Rice or Pletcher atop the standings the last 25 days of the 2009 meet, with neither ever being more than two in front of the other. Rice won the first race of the meet, while Pletcher didn’t win until day 5. The two entered the final three days tied at 18 wins apiece. On day 34 – better remembered as the day Rachel Alexandra beat males in the Grade 1 Woodward – Rice won two races to take the lead for good. Neither trainer won a race the final two days.

“As we got closer and closer I thought obviously there was a chance – not probable – but a chance,” Rice said.

As the meet wound down, Rice’s quest for the title drew a groundswell of support, with many fans – and horsemen – rooting for her.

“If I had been on the outside looking in, I probably would have been rooting for her too,” admitted Pletcher, who has won six Saratoga titles, including five straight from 2002-06.

All of Rice’s 20 victories came in races carded for the turf, though two of those races were run on the main track because of wet weather. Though she has developed a reputation as a turf-sprint specialist, Rice won nine turf races at 5 1/2 furlongs or shorter last summer and nine grass races at a mile or further.

“My father was great with young horses,” said Rice, whose father is the retired trainer Clyde Rice. “I’ve always done well with young horses. The turf thing kind of came along later in my career. Maybe I do have a little bit of a niche with turf-sprint horses, but probably just grass horses in general. I pretty much thought that was pretty much a function of what I ended up to train.”

Success at Saratoga is nothing new for Rice. In 1998, she won her first Grade 1 race when Things Change captured the Spinaway. Things Change also won that year’s Adirondack. In 2000, City Zip swept the trio of stakes for juvenile colts – the Sanford, Saratoga Special and Hopeful. In 2007, Rice finished in a four-way tie for second in the trainer’s standings with 13 wins.

Though she won “only” nine races at Saratoga in 2008, she did saddle the first four finishers of the Mechanicville Stakes. It became known as the Rice superfecta.

Rice was hoping to parlay her Saratoga success into some better business opportunities. While she did pick up a few new owners, Rice still craves the type of client who can give her the financial backing to be more of a factor at auction.

“As a horse trainer, you’d like to go to a horse sale and buy the ones you want instead of watching them all walk away,” said Rice, who recalled being the underbidder to a Pletcher client on a filly who became champion turf horse Wait a While. “I guess my goal would be that I’d have more strength at the auction and put [myself] in a position to buy horses that will win classic races.”

As for this meet, Rice figures to again be a factor, especially bringing back many of the horses who won here last year. Awakino Cat, Mother Russia, and Ahvee’s Destiny, all multiple winners over the turf course here, are expected to surface at the meeting, as is Canadian Ballet, who won a stakes here last year.

Among her new clients are Richlyn Farm, which has the promising 2-year-old filly Town Flirt, and Whitehall Stable, a partnership that has 2-year-olds with Rice including Quick to Strike, a son of freshman sire Henny Hughes who cost $250,000 at auction, and Exact Again, a son of Awesome Again who sold for $85,000.

“A lot of people are expecting an awful lot, but realistically I just hope we go there and have a good meet, the horses run well and we win our share of races, have good racing luck and try not to embarrass myself,” Rice said.