01/12/2008 12:00AM

Rice's influence went beyond races

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - There's an empty spot on the rail by the Tampa Bay Downs paddock these days. The space was occupied most live racing days over the past two decades by a rugged-looking fellow dressed in a work shirt and blue jeans, for this was trainer Don Rice's afternoon office. He was fond of this spot because he could keep a close eye on the horses, and as anyone who knew Rice here could tell you, horses and

family were what mattered most to him.

Rice, who won eight training titles from 1995 to 2005, died at age 72 last week after being injured in an accident at his Antigo Farm near Ocala, Fla. Although Rice appeared to have a gruff exterior, Paula Bacon, who rode for Rice for many years and was a close friend of the trainer and his family, said looks were very much deceiving in Rice's case.

"Don did have a serious look most of the time, and didn't say much to strangers, but what a lot of people didn't know was that Don's hearing wasn't as good as he would have liked it to have been, and he often simply didn't hear a lot of what was going on around him," Bacon said. "People mistook his stoicism for being stuck-up, but he was the farthest thing from that. He was a big ol' teddy bear and a great person."

Rice took Bacon under his wing early in her career and told her from the beginning that her future would be not as a rider but as a trainer. Bacon began training on her own in 2004 and has won 91 races from 454 starts through Friday, a winning percentage of 20.

Bacon recalled that Rice and his wife, Maxine, "made me an unofficial member of the family, and he started giving me a foundation as a trainer even while I was still riding. He taught me that you didn't have to drill horses all the time, that once they got to a solid fitness level you should work on keeping them happy and sound. He always said a happy horse will give you more for a longer period than a sore and sour horse.

"He was devoted to his family and his horses. He and Maxine raised five kids while making a living on the track, and all of those kids have grown up to be solid citizens, which is a credit to their parents."

Joe Waunsch, who led the trainer standings here at the 1989-90 meet, is semi-retired these days and gave another example of how much horses dominated Rice's life.

"I'd go to some mixed-bred and Quarter Horse sales around Ocala and see Don there, just looking at horses," he said. "Sometimes he'd buy something and I'd ask what he wanted with that one. He'd say, 'Oh I just figured I'd take him to the farm, break him, and make a riding horse out of him, then give him to one of the kids in the neighborhood.' "

That was Don Rice.