by Tom Pedulla
When Linda Rice would tell her father, Clyde, that she wanted to extend the family tradition by becoming a third-generation trainer, he was not pleased.
“Get an education,” he would tell her.
So she dutifully attended Penn State, studying computer science. Then she became a trainer.
“My passion is racing,” she said.
And the sport that was once male-dominated is much better for that. She looks to add to what is already a ground-breaking career when the eagerly-anticipated Saratoga meet opens Friday.
“There are some places where you don’t have luck,” said Rice, 48. “My horses always come together for me at Saratoga. I’ve had good luck there.”
More than luck allowed her to become the first woman to win a training title at a major track when she saddled 20 winners at Saratoga Race Course in 2009, edging the mighty barn of Todd Pletcher by one win in a race that captivated fans as much as anything contested on the track.
Each day brought equal amounts of pressure and excitement.
“I felt it,” Rice said, “because I’ve never seen such an overwhelming number of people rooting for one person.”
For fans, they wanted to see history made. For Rice, who began training on her own at age 23 in 1987, the sense of accomplishment was overwhelming. After years of trying to convince owners that she could get the job done, she had gotten it done in such a big way.
“I think it definitely was a bit of a hurdle,” she said of the need to prove she could compete with her male counterparts. “It’s been a little bit more difficult for me to get my stable because of my sex, but over the years I’ve been watching doors open to women. I’d like to think I’ve been part of that.”
Since her Saratoga breakthrough, she has added two training titles at Aqueduct and one at Belmont Park. Yet she will always be linked to the magnificent old track in upstate New York that holds generation after generation of race-goers in its spell.
It was at Saratoga that she earned her first Grade 1 triumph, with aptly-named Things Change in the 1998 Spinaway.
It was there that she watched City Zip sweep the Sanford, Saratoga Special and Hopeful in 2000, the fourth juvenile to accomplish that.
It was there that, incredibly, she sent out the top four finishers in the 2008 Mechanicville Stakes, topped by Ahvee’s Destiny.
Although recent successes allowed her to upgrade the quality of her stock, she emphasizes the incessant nature of that process. She recently increased her activity in the claiming game after focusing primarily on the purchase of young horses early in her career.
“I enjoy winning,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a yearling you bought or a horse you claimed.”
She looks forward to another meet at Saratoga with a 60-horse stable that includes Current Event, a 2-year-old filly that may soon make a name for itself.
“I don’t think we’re going to win a training title,” Rice said. “But we are going to win some races.”
The hard-driving daughter of Clyde Rice continues to push ahead, hardly content with previous successes.
“I’m not looking to be a one-hit wonder,” she said.