Best of 2023: Linda Rice
Dec 29, 2023
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Best of 2023: Linda Rice

by Mary Eddy

Just three live race days remain in 2023 to complete a remarkable year of racing action on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit. To celebrate the season, the NYRA Press Office checked in with a selection of trainers, owners, jockeys and racing personalities to share their reflections on the memorable year.

Trainer Linda Rice is on the precipice of eclipsing the record for most training wins in a single year at NYRA of 164 set by David Jacobson in 2013. Rice, 59, enters Friday’s card at Aqueduct Racetrack with 161 NYRA-circuit wins including Grade 3 scores with Mommasgottarun in the Distaff Handicap and Joey Freshwater in the Bay Shore, both in April at Aqueduct.

Additionally, Rice’s total purse earnings this year exceeded $10 million for the first time in her career that dates to her 1987 debut at Pimlico Race Course. With 164 total wins this year, she is nearing her personal best of 166 achieved in 2017. Her NYRA successes led her to claim victory as the meet-leading trainer at four consecutive meetings this year, coming out on top at Aqueduct winter [37], Aqueduct spring [17], Belmont spring/summer [34], and at Saratoga, where she closed a two-win deficit on the final day to tie Chad Brown for top honors with 35 wins each.

With Rice setting personal records and approaching record numbers on her home circuit this year, she looked back on some of the moments and accomplishments she is most proud of as she works each day alongside a dedicated staff at Belmont Park.

Q: This year, you broke your earnings record and are nearing the NYRA win record. What are some of your fondest memories and takeaways from this year?

“It’s been an incredible year. The $10 million is our high watermark, and we were floating in the $5 million and $7 million ranks the past few years. It was great to break it. But more important than the purses themselves, the Belmont meet was amazing and so exciting. Jose Ortiz rode a lot for us and he won the riding title as well.

“Of course, Saratoga was a meet to remember and quite a thrill. We looked like we had no chance to win at that meet, but we pulled it off with two days left. In general, the whole year has been great. The purse earnings are good, but the memories, the emotions and hard work that goes into it – that’s really what it’s all about.”

Q: The New York circuit is widely accepted as one of the most difficult ones in America. What does it mean to you that you have found such success here?

“I’m very proud of that fact. In 2017, we won 166 races, but maybe 30 of them had been in Maryland that year. To me, it’s very satisfying that this year, almost all of the more than 160 wins have been here at NYRA tracks. This is home for us, and it’s a tough venue to compete at. We’re very proud.

“We consolidated into New York in 2013. I used to send a division to Florida in the winter and I felt like our efforts would be rewarded if we concentrated on New York racing. Ever since we consolidated to New York year round, I’ve seen a significant increase in our performance and results, and of course our purse earnings. That’s been a big boost for us.”

Q: In recent years, you’ve stepped up your efforts in claiming horses, and have seen great results, including graded wins with claimed horses Joey Freshwater and Mommasgottarun. What are you looking for in a horse when considering a claim?

“I’m a big pedigree buff. I like to claim horses with nice pedigrees that might have fallen from the ranks in larger stables. I like to claim ones that are lightly raced and that I’m thinking maybe someone gave up on them too soon. That’s one of the factors, and I think it’s been working pretty well.”

Q: Among your wins were stakes victories in 14 events at NYRA. What are some of your favorite performances by your trainees this year?

“Winning the Grade 3 with Mommasgottarun was exciting. I claimed her in December and we won the Distaff in April. That was really exciting – to take a filly and have her win a Grade 3 with a newer client, Ronald Stewart, that I have been working with for about a year [was special].

“We claimed Pioneering Spirit out of a maiden $40,000 and he won the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga and the Knickerbocker this fall. That was terrific. The Bay Shore with Joey Freshwater, who we claimed last fall, that was exciting. We won the Garland of Roses last year with Betsy Blue on short rest, and we did the same this year with Hot Fudge.

“El Grande O, a homebred for Barry Schwartz, has had a very good year, and Arctic Arrogance, a homebred for Chester and Mary Broman, ran well [to finish second] in the Jerome and Withers. They come from different directions. Some are homebreds for clients, some are claims, and some are 2-year-old purchases at the sales. But for me, the goal is for all of it to come together at the same place and win races in New York. That’s what we’ve been trying to achieve.”

Q: Many of New York racing’s most celebrated moments in 2023 have centered around women, including a historic win by Jena Antonucci in the Belmont Stakes and a strong season by jockey Katie Davis. As you approach the NYRA win record, what does it mean to be reaching historic heights and serving as an example for women in our sport?

“It’s great – we’ve had a great year, and if that can inspire other women to do the same, that’s terrific.

“In the past decade, a lot of doors have begun to open up for women. Julie Krone was fabulous and she broke the ceiling for female riders. In New York, Katie Davis has had a tremendous year, and Jena Antonucci was such a phenomenal story to see her win the Belmont and Travers. It goes to show you have to have the right horse, and there’s plenty of capable horsemen out there. You’re going to see more of this all over the country.”

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