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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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At The Racetrack, Bloodlines Run Deep

Thoroughbred racing, more than almost any other sport, is about families and personalities.

Linda Rice of Floral Park, the first woman to win a training title in New York when she saddled 20 winners at Saratoga in 2009, fits this profile. Clyde Rice, her father, was an accomplished thoroughbred horse trainer who grew up in central Wisconsin with future Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Messrs. Rice and Lukas trained horses from a young age and both left Wisconsin to pursue racing careers, with Clyde moving his family to Hershey, PA, where Linda and her three brothers grew up. Nonetheless, the two men remained good friends through the years.

“I’m the coach,” Rice told me, when we spoke recently about her responsibilities as the head of Linda Rice Racing, a 45-employee enterprise that moved last weekend to Saratoga from Belmont for Saratoga’s annual summer meet. “I oversee the horse’s diet, their medication and their training routines.”

Like all successful coaches, the 40-something-year-old Rice is driven, and a shrewd talent scout, whether at private auctions or when identifying under-appreciated horses in what are known as claiming races. These are instances where an owner enters a horse into a contest, understanding that another owner can purchase that horse before the race is run for a specified sum. Exchange Cat, for instance, was bought by Linda Rice Racing on a client’s (Mulberry Stable) behalf for $16,000, improved tremendously under her tutelage, and was valued soon after at $75,000.

Her company’s barns in New York and Florida usually have anywhere from 40 to 60 horses under its care, she said, and the Linda Rice Racing’s grooms, hot walkers and exercise riders are busiest each day from 5:30 to 10:30 a.m., when putting the stable’s athletes through their exercise regimens while also assessing their physical condition. Rice’s afternoons are dedicated to tasks such as client communications — horse owners understandably want constant updates on how their thoroughbreds are doing, and when they’ll run competitively again — and reviewing condition books. These documents list the criteria governing who can compete in a particular track’s upcoming races. The typical 12-hour workday comes to an end around 5:30 p.m., but her business is clearly an all-consuming passion for Rice.

“Performance is an advertisement in itself,” Rice, a Penn State alumna, explained when discussing how horse owners decide to retain her. “I need to make sure not only that the horse is ready to race well, but also that they’re in the right race.”

Linda Rice Racing has built an impressive record in that regard. The horses she’s trained earned $3.2 million in purse money at New York tracks in 2012, placing either first, second or third in 41 percent of the races they ran. In racetrack parlance, a win, place or show is deemed to be finishing “in the money.” Indeed, she seems to have hit her stride over the past two years. Rice and trainer Todd Pletcher, for instance, tied for the most wins at the 2011 Belmont spring/summer meet while she and trainer David Jacobson each had the same number of wins at the 2011 Aqueduct spring meeting, resulting in another tie. She was also Aqueduct’s top trainer during its 2012 spring meet, with 13 victories.

N.F.’s Destiny and Palace were working out on the morning I visited Rice’s Belmont stable this month, and I was impressed with the operation’s efficiency. State-of-the-art stopwatch in hand, Rice communicated to her exercise rider through a wireless walkie-talkie while he was on Belmont’s training track about how fast, and how far, she wanted the horses to run.

The initials in N.F.’s Destiny’s name were derived from his mother, Noble Fire, who was also trained by Rice. N.F.’s Destiny has been performing very well, having finished in the money in 10 of 11 career starts, with four first-place finishes. The four-year-old has earned $202,400 for his owner to date. Palace, a son of the Rice-trained City Zip, who won multiple stakes races during a storied career, has finished in the money in nine of his 10 career starts, with five victories, taking in $197,800 so far for Palace’s owners.

Decades removed from their first interactions in Wisconsin, the Rice and Lukas families have in recent years crossed paths again at Saratoga Race Course, where the 2013 Summer Meet will continue through Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 2.

City Zip and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Yonaguska finished in a dead heat for first place, a highly unusual occurrence, in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in September 2000. The outcome meant the two trainers both appeared in the winner’s circle together after the finish line photo was unable to determine a clear winner. Moreover, the Lukas-trained Dublin won the Hopeful Stakes in September 2009 and, since it was held on the final day of racing that year at the upstate track, Rice joined Lukas in the winner’s circle then, as well, when receiving the 2009 Saratoga trainer’s title.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net