By Bill Finley
This was not anything that Linda Rice planned for or made a goal. It just happened. Rice started winning races at Laurel and never stopped. A trainer who, when the year began, did not have a single stall in Maryland and started 77 fewer horses at the meet than competitor Keiron Magee, picked up her first non-New York training title when Laurel closed Sunday.
Both Rice and Magee had 27 winners at the meet, but Rice had 51 starters to Magee’s 128. Her winning percentage was a remarkable 53% and 78% of her starters finished in the money. Claudio Gonzalez finished right behind the top two with 26 winners. He sent out 117 runners. Rice easily won the Laurel money-earned title as her starters earned $836,430 to $693,653 for Gonzalez’s barn.
“I think the whole thing was pretty cool,” Rice said. “I grew up in the Northeast. As a little girl I used to go to Laurel and run horses with my father [Clyde], who was based in Pennsylvania [at Penn National]. We’d make road trips to Laurel and Pimlico. I am very fond of that part of the country, so to do this was really exciting.”
Rice’s success in Maryland this year has its roots in a decision she made four years ago when she changed her strategy and stopped racing at Gulfstream in the winter. She would, instead, remain in New York year-round, but needed a secondary option for many of her horses.
“To race in New York year-round and not go to Miami, that turned out to be a positive move for me,” she said. “This year, I had quite a few horses that were ready to run coming off layoffs, surgeries, what not. There were some cancellations in New York with the weather and, then, of course, we were down to four days a week of racing and then three days a week in March. I needed to find some place to run these horses. Plus, I had several horses for the same condition and I needed to separate them. I had been running at Parx some during the winter, but always seemed to have more success at Laurel. My horses seemed to like that track better. Frankly, my horses were running well at Laurel. So you continue to do what works.”
Rice also fared well at Aqueduct during the inner-track meet. She had 27 winners from 110 starters, finishing second behind Rudy Rodriguez (34 winners) for leading trainer. She said her decision to stop going to Gulfstream came down to simple economics. With the competition being so tough, she found it hard to win there and the purses, for the most part, are bigger at Aqueduct than they are at Gulfstream.
For statistical purposes, the Laurel meet began on Jan. 1. Rice didn’t win her first races there until Jan. 21 when she had two victories on the card. At the time, there didn’t appear to be any chance she would even threaten for the training title, let alone win it. Without stalls in Maryland and going up against trainers like Magee, Gonzalez and Mike Trombetta, who have large divisions there, she simply didn’t appear to have the ammunition.
But her barn couldn’t do anything wrong when it came to Laurel. Rice says that it was not until the final few days of the meet that she even contemplated the fact that she might win the title.
“It was actually quite shocking,” she said. “This kind of came up on us by surprise.”
Rice came into the penultimate day of the meet trailing Magee and Gonzalez both by one winner. They were shut out as Rice’s only two starters on the card, Seymourdini (Bernardini) and Apollo Landing (Malibu Moon) both won. On Sunday, neither Rice nor Gonzalez had anything entered. Magee sent out two horses and the second of the pair, Miss Swisher (Trappe Shot) won, allowing him to draw even with Rice.
Rice said that had she been more focused on what was going on at Laurel she might have tried harder to win the title outright.
“We only became aware of this over the last two weeks,” she said. “I was telling my staff here, ‘Gee, we should have tried to enter a few more for closing day.’ We did not dip into the well, trying to make that an accomplishment. Maybe we should have. I had been in Ocala for the OBS April sale and when I returned from Ocala, we were moving horses to Saratoga. So, I was quite busy. We could have probably tried a little harder. Not that we’re not very happy that our horses have raced so well. Winning at Laurel, winning in New York, it’s all good.”
Rice won a training title in Saratoga, in 2009, and admits that will always be her most favored accomplishment when it comes to leading the standings. Yet, she “only” won with 27% of her starters at Saratoga that year. She’s never before come close to approaching 53% at any meet.
Rice has grown so enamored with Maryland racing that she applied for stalls there in early March and currently has 16 horses based there. While New York will remain her primary focus, she said she hopes to pick up Maryland-based owners and build a solid stable to race at both Pimlico and Laurel. She won’t have a hard time convincing anyone she knows how to win there.