Like Father, Like Son: Rice Family Part of Fabric of New York Racing

The Life
Harry Rice IV and his father, Harry III, visiting with 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. (Courtesy of the Rice family.)

Harry Rice III is the kind of man who makes you think that it would be great to sit down and talk with him about anything for a length of time. When he looks at you with his dancing eyes and his charming smile, you are instantly put at ease. Sitting next to him is his son, Harry IV, who has inherited his father’s affability and is blessed with the charisma and drive typical of a 22-year-old college student on his way to finding his dreams.

As father and son, their paths are somewhat similar in that their journey brought them both to the track. Harry Rice II worked as a security guard at Aqueduct in the early 1970s. Rice III was born in Queens 60 years ago, back when it was considered country living. They used to go to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the summer and that is where he started working as an usher. “When I graduated from high school, one thing led to another. I started working at Belmont for Louie Olah as the assistant color man.” Olah was famous and known as the “Colors Man.” He took care of the jockey silks, which sounds fairly simplistic until you realize that there were more than 4,000 silks. 

Harry Rice III heading back to the jockeys’ room with saddle and pad. (Julie June Stewart photo)

It was a big day for Rice III when he became a valet in 1987. In the horse racing world it is pronounced VAL-et with a crunchy-hard “T.” In a well- practiced schooling about the word, he will tell you “the old-timers used to tell me that valets park cars and ‘val-ettes’ saddle horses.” He stops a minute and looks at his son. There is a lot of non-verbal communication between them. There are those quick looks while they check in with each other. There are the special smiles between them that covers years of shared history together. There is the usual exasperation of a son correcting a father and the grin on dad’s face when he looks at his son. He looks aside out of the corner of his eye and says under his breath, “Now that I am getting near the end of my road, it’s so nice to have your son involved.”

He describes what is involved in a valet’s job. “Every day is a different day. A valet gets here in the morning. We work for the race association to ensure that the proper weights go to the horses. When the jockey weighs out, we take the saddle and assist the trainer to put the saddle on the horse.  After the race; when the jockey weighs in, we take the saddle back. There are actually pockets that hold the weights.  We have a separate business to take care of certain rider’s equipment. Tomorrow, I will be taking care of Mike Smith. When I come in in the morning, I will have all his helmets made up and all his clothes laid out for him.” He smiles and adds “the right silks,” which is important because Smith’s mount Justify has multiple owners’ silks, depending on the race.

When asked about Rice IV, Smith looked up and smiled the warmest smile. “He’s like a family member.  We have been together 30-something years.” He started to hustle to the jocks room and skid to a stop and turned around. “He is just a beautiful person.” Rice loves being a valet. He has worked with Jean Cruguet, Mike Luzzi, Rajiv Maragh, Joe Rocco Jr., Frankie Dettori, Yutaka Take, and Corey Nakatani, among others. He works the entire New York circuit which includes Saratoga Race Course, Aqueduct, and Belmont Park.

Father and son at Belmont Park. (Julie June Stewart photo)

“Saratoga is so nice because it’s the sport of horse racing up there. All the people are centrally located.  You go to town and everybody talks about the races. It’s a great time.” He remembers some great horses and races, especially the Seattle Slew Triple Crown campaign. “Seattle Slew was the first big horse I was around.” He grins when he says “Seattle Slew was a running machine.” He also saddled Holy Bull. “He was good. He was ready to run. You would put the saddle on him and he would be like ‘Come on! Let’s go!’ ” 

It was at Saratoga that he sent his son to a riding day camp. Rice IV remembers it as a great adventure that was lots of fun and included several jockey’s sons. He started working at Saratoga when he was 14 for Hall of Fame trainer Tom Voss and started as a hot walker. “Voss taught me how to walk around a horse and how to put a shank on. He really taught me the right way. He was awesome to work with.”

When Voss passed away, Rice IV didn’t want to leave horse racing. His dad made arrangements for him to ask Hall of Fame trainer “Shug” McGaughey for a job and he was hired the next season. He walked Mr Speaker (2014 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes winner) his first year. “He was a really cool horse to be around. As the years went on, I am still a hot walker with more responsibilities, such as organizing swing sets, holding horses for the vet and blacksmith, and bringing horses to the cold Equi-Spa.”

Blenheim Palace is one of his favorites. “She only won one race, in a dead heat here [at Belmont]. She is by Medalia d’Oro out of Pleasant Home. But she was an awesome horse. She was like a big, old puppy dog. No one touched her other than me. Everyone knew that she was my horse. She was really cool. She is bred to Bernardini now.” 

Harry Rice IV working for NYRA. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Rice IV says that the best horse he has worked with was “Honor Code without a doubt. He knew he was good. He knew who he was. He let you know what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, and how he wanted to do it. He was awesome.” His favorite race was the 2015 Whitney Stakes because of the way Honor Code closed, but “celebrating it was tough was because our family friend Mike Smith finished second.” Both father and son got emotional when they remembered that Mike Smith dedicated his Travers win on board Coronado’s Quest in 1998 to Rice II, who had been sick and passed away. 

McGaughey was not hesitant when asked about Rice IV. “He’s really come a long way since he first started. He came around three or four years ago. I really admire him. He drives over here from Staten Island every day and never complains. He loves racing. He’s very motivated. He knows what he wants to do in sports television. I am a big admirer of his, and I think he will go a long way in what he does. He’s a hell of a kid.”  

Right now, Rice IV wants to stay in horse racing. He is graduating from Penn State with a major in telecommunications and a minor in equine science. He rides Western on the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) Equestrian team at college and has won ribbons. He works for NYRA as a production assistant on two different shows. “I help the producer and director in getting various elements of the show together.” When the show is live, he is with Maggie Wolfendale in the paddock. He helps her get interviews that she needs and basically tries to make her job a little easier.

He also works for NBC. “I started out as a spotter. It was great and a lot of fun. Then there was the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in California. I helped getting jockeys and owners to the winner’s circle and the presentation area for the Distaff and the Classic. It was easy because I know a lot of the jockeys both East Coast and West Coast.” During the Kentucky Derby in 2017, he became a talent assistant for Donna Brothers. Since 2016, he has done every Triple Crown race and every Breeders’ Cup. 

His dad added, “I tried to chase him away [from a career in horse racing] because it’s so time consuming. You miss a lot of things, but I am very proud of him. Any time that you can find something that you enjoy and love to do, it’s not really work. He seems to enjoy it and he’s good at it. People are happy to work with him and I hope he keeps it going. He has had a lot of pressure put on him. [This happens when] you follow your father and it’s a lot of pressure. And then there is the equal pressure of having the same name. He’s doing a tremendous job.” 

Harry Rice III, Joan Rice, Meghan (sister), and Harry Rice IV at Belmont Park in 1998. (Courtesy of the Rice Family)

Lost on memories sharing their love of horse racing. There is a 1998 family photo taken at Belmont.  There are Harry and Joan standing proudly with their two children. Daughter Meghan is dressed in an adorable yellow dress and stands with her dad’s hand protectively on her shoulder. Rice IV is probably 2 or 3 years old. He stands with a quizzical look on his face while holding his mother’s hand. Behind him, one can glimpse an outrider’s horse taking a break. It’s an iconic photo that is repeated today as families gather in the paddock for a photograph.

Horse racing creates an extended family. Some of Rice IV’s college friends are confused that he is from New York and is involved with horses. This brings a huge smile from him and he explains that when you look at the Rice family, they have always been involved with horses throughout the generations. There was Daniel Rice who was “one of the last guys to drive a fire truck with horses.” There was a great-grandfather who was a blacksmith for the police department. There is the father who is a valet and the son who is embracing modern-day communications and equine science. They are the backbone of the industry as good people who continue to care for friends, family, and horses. They may both walk past you at the track and you may not notice them. If you ever get a chance to sit and talk with them, it’s well worth the time. With Father’s Day approaching, it’s nice to see such a loving relationship. They make the world a better place. 

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