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Taylor Rice making quick work of apprenticeship

By Sean Morris | 03/21/2014 11:18 AM ET
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Taylor Rice
PHOTO/Photo/Adam Coglianese

In the midst of a long, cold winter in New York, jockey Taylor Rice has enjoyed a meet-long hot streak at Aqueduct Racetrack, propelling her from relative obscurity to fifth place in the inner-track jockey standings and placing her name alongside some of the best riders in the business.

Through Thursday, Rice has compiled a record of 40-28-34 from 200 starts, putting her behind journeymen Irad Ortiz, Jr., who sits atop the leaderboard with 78 winners, Jose Ortiz, Cornelio Velasquez and Manny Franco.

Though unknown to most prior to the 2013-2014 Aqueduct winter meet, the 25-year-old apprentice comes from a family steeped in racing tradition. Her grandfather, Clyde Rice, grew up with D. Wayne Lukas in Antigo, Wis. and is an owner and former trainer, and her aunt, Linda Rice, is a fixture on the NYRA circuit and currently tied for third in the trainer standings at Aqueduct.

Rice's immediate family is actively involved in the game, as well.  Her father is a trainer and former jockey, her mother is a farm manager, and the first horse she rode to victory was trained by her brother.

Although relatively inexperienced, her strong racing background helps explain the precocity she displays on the track, which has caught the eye of industry veterans and casual fans alike.

"She's already got down the hardest thing to learn, and that's patience and how to position your horses," said former jockey and NYRA TV analyst Richard Migliore, who heads the jockey apprentice program at The New York Racing Assocation, Inc. (NYRA). "She puts her horses in good position and sees a race well; that's a very hard thing for a young rider to get. Now she just needs to work on her physical strength and how she finishes on horses. When [her strength] catches up to her intelligence, she's going to be the complete package."

Before her current success, Rice came to Belmont in the fall of 2013 for a two-week period after Presque Isle Downs closed at the end of September. Although she didn't ride any winners during that stretch, getting a taste of elite racing proved useful when she moved her tack to Hawthorne Racecourse, where she won 41 of 196 starts and finished seventh in the jockey standings. When Hawthorne's meet came to a close at the end of 2013, Rice headed back to New York with a renewed confidence and primed for success on a bigger stage.

"I was just a seven pound bug with only six wins under me when I first came [to New York]," said Rice, who graduated from Florida State University with a degree in international relations prior to launching her career as a jockey. "[When I came back] the momentum I had from Hawthorne really helped; people were willing to give me a shot."

Chief among those ready to give her a leg up when she returned to New York was her aunt, Linda, who encouraged her to make the move to the circuit due to its lucrative purses. Linda was able to provide her with an influx of shorter-priced horses to go along with the steady diet of long shots every apprentice must first showcase their abilities on, which proved instrumental to expanding the fledgling rider's business.

"I was putting her on a lot of horses I own, at first," said the trainer, "but it wasn't long before my other owners were telling me it would be OK to have her ride their horses, too, once she started winning. She's a real talent."

Already enjoying modest success at the meet, a major breakthrough occurred for Rice when - almost by accident - she gained the respect and business of the leading trainer on the NYRA circuit in 2013, David Jacobson.

"I figured as a favor to Linda [Rice] I'd put her on a horse or two; I had no idea how she could ride," said Jacobson. "One of them won, one of them finished third, and she did everything right. I said, 'Wow, let's try another one, maybe it was just luck.' It turned out it wasn't luck. She's a very skilled, talented rider and I feel she can ride against anybody in New York."

With two of the best trainers in New York giving her mounts, Rice was poised to make a rapid ascension up the jockey standings. But perhaps more impressive than her position on the leaderboard is the way she's achieved it, having ridden at least 75 fewer races than each of the four jockeys ahead of her. Her 20 percent win percentage is second only to Irad Ortiz, Jr.'s meet-leading 23 percent clip. While such a high conversion of winners is an obvious testament to her skill, every jockey knows that it would be impossible to win at that rate without the help of a savvy agent. In Rice's case, it is veteran agent Roger Sutton navigating the volatile landscape of racing for her with precision and tact.

"To borrow an old racetrack term, I like the flashing lights," said Sutton. "9-2, 7-2, 8-5, 3-5, that's where you're going to win. I want to ride a favorite every race. They say favorites win less than 30 percent of the time but if I put her on a favorite, second favorite, or third favorite, I've done my job. Then it's up to the horse to produce."

It is Rice's ability to coax the best effort out of every horse she gets aboard - whether it's a favorite or a long shot - that has separated her from many of the other apprentice jockeys who try to make a go of it during the winter at the Big A. However, despite her tremendous success, Rice is by no means a finished product, as she will readily admit.

"I definitely need to improve my strength, my finish," said Rice, echoing the words of Migliore. "I just want to keep getting better and better."

While the waters will get deeper when many of the top riders return from Florida, Rice is hopeful her attitude and professionalism will continue to make her an attractive option to prospective employers. Her gaudy win percentage may dip but her ability has already made a lasting impression on owners, trainers, and fans.

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