|Linda Rice hopes to spoil most horse racing fans afternoon today.|
With most of the equine community rooting for Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome to win the Preakness Stakes, Rice will saddle 20-1 long-shot Kid Cruz in the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md. Post time is 5:18 p.m. Antigo time and the race will be broadcast over NBC-TV.
“He impressed me enough in his last two races, and he’s trained very well where I think he deserves a chance at this race,” Rice said.
Rice, 50, was born in Racine, but her horse racing roots are squarely in Antigo, the hometown of her father, Clyde, mother, Jean, and a host of brothers, cousins, and friends who all maintain deep ties to the Thoroughbred community.
Clyde was a successful trainer in Pennsylvania and Linda’s brothers all were involved in the game. Brian Rice runs Woodside Ranch in Ocala, Fla. Wayne Rice has a farm in Ocala and runs horses at Presque Isle Downs in the summer. Curt Rice, at age 16, was the leading apprentice jockey in the country. He now manages his parents’ farm.
Technically, Kid Cruz is not Rice’s first starter in a Triple Crown race. She was listed as the trainer of Supervisor for the 2003 Belmont, but she was doing her father a favor. Clyde had broken the horse and after he ran third in the Peter Pan for trainer Manny Tortora, the owner left the horse with Rice to run in the Belmont, where he finished fifth behind winner Empire Maker.
The closest Rice previously came to the Triple Crown races was in 1997 with The Silver Move, who had won the 1996 Remsen Stakes, but who had foot issues at 3. City Zip, arguably the best horse Rice trained, swept the trio of graded stakes for juveniles at Saratoga in 2000, but he had distance limitations.
Named for New York Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz is set to make his first graded-stakes start in the Preakness. He comes into the Preakness with only five starts, but his last two were stakes wins in the Private Terms at Laurel and the Federico Tesio at Pimlico. He is the only Preakness candidate to run over the Pimlico track.
“He’s won over the track, so we’re going to find out if he can handle this type of competition,” Rice said. “I’m excited to see how it plays out. We’re here and we’re ready to go.”
Owned by Vina Del Mar Thoroughbreds and Black Swan Stable, Kid Cruz appears to be one of the contenders who would benefit most from a lively, contested pace. All three of his victories have come from off the pace, sometimes far off it.
“When he ran in the Private Terms, he was so far back, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what’s wrong?’” Rice said. “He was 22 lengths back. We planned to be off the pace and make a run, but that was a surprise to me and actually a concern at the time.”
Rice acquired Kid Cruz through the claim box, an unusual way to find a triple Crown starter.
After Kid Cruz made a dismal debut, faltering home seventh in a maiden special weight race last Nov. 3 at Aqueduct, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and then-owner Black Swan Stable took a calculated risk by dropping him into a one-mile race at Aqueduct two weeks later for a $50,000 claiming price.
Rice was impressed with his pedigree. From a physical standpoint, she liked him even more when he walked into the paddock to be saddled, and so the claim was made in behalf of Vina Del Mar Thoroughbreds to the dismay of the previous connections.
“We really didn’t think off the first race somebody would take him,” John DeStefano, who manages Black Swan Stable. “We didn’t want to lose him.”
DeStefano and his partners were intrigued enough by Kid Cruz that he contacted Rice and explored the possibility of buying back into the horse. A 45-percent stake was arranged to what proved to be the benefit of both parties.
Rice will become just the 15th woman to saddle a horse in the Preakness and first since Mucho Macho Man was sixth for Kathy Ritvo in 2011. The best finish for any female trainer was Maryland-bred and based Magic Weisner for the late Nancy Alberts in 2002.
After studying computer science at Penn State for two years, Rice began training at Monmouth Park in 1987 before moving to the New York circuit in 1991, where she has remained since. She has campaigned Grade 1 winners Lucifer’s Stone, Things Change and City Zip, and on Aug. 18, 2008 saddled the first four finishers in the Mechanicville Stakes at Saratoga.
The following year, Rice picked up 20 winners – all on turf – to edge perennial champion Todd Pletcher and become the first woman to capture Saratoga’s prestigious training title. She also finished second to Pletcher in 2007 and 2010.
She won her 1,000th career race with Sextant on July 16, 2011, closing day of the Belmont Park spring-summer meet, to tie Pletcher for the trainer’s title. Rice also tied for the trainer’s crown at Aqueduct’s 2011 spring meet.
“It was wonderful to win the training title at Saratoga and wonderful to win one at Aqueduct and Belmont,” Rice said. “It would be wonderful if I was the first woman to win the Preakness, but that is a big if.”
In 27 years as a trainer, Rice, through Tuesday, has won 1,228 races and her horses have earned $42.9 million in purse money, making her the most successful female trainer in purse money won in North America.
Clyde Rice, 76, said he hasn’t been surprised by his daughter’s success, which includes 30 graded stakes victories, four in Grade 1 races.
“She’s been a student of racing ever since high school,” he said. “It’s been a long road to hoe, but she’s hoed it. She never wanted to rely on just being a woman trainer. She puts her horses out there just like anybody else. I’m proud of her. She’s going to go after it with both barrels.”
Kid Cruz, left, with exercise rider Reul Munoz aboard, walks past the grandstand after a workout under a thick layer of fog at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Thursday. In the inset, trainer Linda Rice smiles after the colt drew post position No. 7.