Linda Rice was 17 years old, a time when the real world begins to come into view for most teenagers. She and her father, Clyde, had attended a Keeneland sale in Lexington, Ky., and were driving back to their farm in Pennsylvania when an accident ahead of them caused a delay.
Clyde seized the opportunity for some serious conversation.
“What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” he asked.
“I want to be like you, dad,” she responded. “I want to be a horse trainer.”
“Well,” he said, “it would be easier if you were one of my sons.”
Although undeterred by such talk, Rice enrolled at Penn State for two years and studied computer science. As much as she applied herself to her courses, she came to understand that such a path would never lead to happiness.
“I came to realize I didn’t want to spend my entire life in computers. It wasn’t where my passion was,” Rice said. “It was with horses.”
She left Penn State after two years and took out her trainer’s license in 1987. Clyde understood and was so supportive he assigned her half a dozen horses or so at the outset. Now viewed as the leading female trainer in the United States, Rice was hardly an overnight success.
“It was very difficult getting started,” Rice said. “My father was my first client and then I grew from there. But it was many years of building the business. It’s taken many years and a lot of hard work.”
If she had an advantage in what continues to be an aspect of the industry populated largely by men, it was her upbringing.
“When you grow up around horses, you learn the behavior of horses, the psychology of the horse,” she said. “It allows you to be very advanced and have many years of experience by the time you start training them.”
If it indeed would have been easier to be one of Clyde’s sons, she never complained about it. She just pushed all the more.
“She is the hardest working trainer I’ve ever been around,” said Aron Yagoda, who first became one of Rice’s clients in 1998 and continues to be part of her operation. “She really does work a full day. She loves to win and she’s very thorough. I trust her immensely.”
Rice knows no other way. If there is a gender card to be played, she opts not to.
“I think being a successful trainer is hard, period,” she said. “No matter what sex you are, it’s hard. It’s a tough job. It’s seven days a week taking care of livestock animals. It’s very challenging on a lot of fronts. It’s very difficult, male or female.”
Her business has grown to approximately 75 horses, a number she finds manageable. She made an indelible mark by becoming the first woman to win the training title at Saratoga or any major track, accomplishing that in 2009. She edged Todd Pletcher’s powerhouse stable in wins, 20-19, in a duel that captivated fans in the late stages of a summer meet to remember.
A jubilant Rice said upon clinching that title: “This is the type of thing you just don’t think will ever happen. To walk into the winner’s circle and get awarded with the leading trainer title and be the first woman to do that at a major race meet just makes it that much more special.”
She added training titles at the 2011 Belmont Park spring-summer meet and at Aqueduct during the winter meet in both 2018-’19 and 2019-’20. She captured four stakes at Aqueduct at the 2018-’19 meet and used four different horses to do so with Blindwillie McTell in the Rego Park Stakes, Holiday Disguise in the Broadway Stakes, Bavaro in the Hollie Hughes Stakes, and Startwithsilver in the Correction Stakes. Rice added three more stakes wins at the 2019-’20 Aqueduct winter meet, including her milestone 2,000th career win when Scilly Cay won the Rego Park Stakes Jan. 12.
“I think one of her strong points is that she stays in New York year-round and places her horses well,” Yagoda said.
Rice owns more than 2,000 career wins with more than $82 million in career purse earnings. She is hardly content. Winning Triple Crown races and becoming a significant player at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships are very much on her radar.
“You need financial backing, you need the numbers, and you need some luck,” she said, adding, “Those are goals I would love to reach.”
Note: This story was originally published in July 2019 and has been updated.
- Rice trained 2015 Eclipse Award-winning female sprinter La Verdad.
- When Rice secured Saratoga’s prestigious summer training title, she won with 20 of 75 starters (26.7%) while Pletcher reached the winner’s circle with 19 of 134 (14.1%).
- Rice enjoyed an auspicious start by winning the first race of that meet.
- When Rice earned her first win and her 1,000th, both horses were owned by her father.
- On Aug. 18, 2008, Rice trained the first four finishers in the Mechanicville Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, a result dubbed the “Rice Superfecta.”
- When she brought home the training title at he 2018-’19 Aqueduct winter meet, Rice’s starters hit the board 59.44% of the time.