Rice, Franco, repeat Aqueduct winter meet titles
by Keith McCalmont
Drawing Away Stable led all owners
Trainer Linda Rice notched 40 wins for her second consecutive winter meet crown, while jockey Manny Franco posted 64 victories to win his third consecutive winter meet title at Aqueduct Racetrack. Drawing Away Stable bested all owners with 19 wins for the abbreviated winter meet that ran from December 12 through March 15.
Originally scheduled to run through Sunday, March 29, the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) suspended racing on March 19 due to changing circumstances in the racing community relative to the coronavirus (COVID-19).
On Saturday, NYRA announced that live racing at Aqueduct Racetrack was canceled for the remainder of the winter and spring meets with the building set to serve as a temporary hospital site during the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Originally scheduled for 59 days, the abbreviated 50-day Aqueduct winter meet lost the final two weekends (six racing days) of the meet when live racing was suspended. Live racing was canceled at the Big A on December 19 due to extremely low wind-chill values and on February 7 and February 27 due to dangerously high winds.
Rice, whose previous meet title was the 2019 Aqueduct winter when she saddled 45 winners, again finished atop the standings, posting a 40-33-31 record in 196 starts for an outstanding winning percentage of 20.41 while her starters finished top-three more than 53 percent of the time, totaling earnings of more than $2.14 million.
"It's exciting to win another title," said Rice of the title defense. "I was pleased to finally come away with a win last year and it's great to build on that success."
Rice boosted her NYRA-meet title totals to seven with previous successes including 2009 Saratoga [20 wins], 2011 Aqueduct spring [9 wins, tie], 2011 Belmont spring/summer [25 wins, tie], 2012 Aqueduct spring [13 wins], 2017 Aqueduct spring [12 wins, tie] and last year's Big A winter meet [45 wins].
Rice attributes the significant NYRA-circuit success to a stable hyper-focused on New York racing.
"I changed my business model five years ago to stay in New York year-round and not divide my stable between New York and Florida," said Rice. "I think that's certainly helped us to gain more ground on the New York circuit. New York has really good purses and we've concentrated on racing here for the most part."
Rice bested fellow longtime New York-based trainer Rudy Rodriguez for the top spot, with Rodriguez doubling the win total from third-place finisher Rob Atras [16 wins] by going 32-31-26 with 167 starters in his second-place finish.
Among Rice's meet highlights was Max Player winning the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers, a prep race for the Kentucky Derby that garnered 10 points towards the "Run for the Roses," on February 1. Montauk Traffic also won the $100,000 Jimmy Winkfield on February 8 and Scilly Cay earned a winner's circle trip in the $100,000 Rego Park on January 12, providing Rice her 2,000th career win.
Franco compiled a 64-42-53 record in 271 mounts with earnings of more than $3.13 million. He has won all three riding titles during Aqueduct winter meets since NYRA removed the inner track in favor of a second turf course in time for 2018.
As NYRA's year-end leading rider in 2018 and 2019, Franco continued his stellar record at Aqueduct, finishing in the money in more than 58 percent of his starts this meet while registering a winning percentage of 23.62. Jose Lezcano and Eric Cancel tied for second with 58 wins apiece.
Among the 25-year-old's top accomplishments this meet was winning three stakes since the calendar turned to 2020, piloting Crimson Frost in the $125,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational on March 8; Ice Princess in the $100,000 Maddie May on February 23; and More Mischief in the $100,000 Biogio's Rose on February 9.
When not racing in New York, Franco posted a pair of graded stakes wins at Gulfstream Park in Florida with New York-bred Tiz the Law, winning the Grade 3 Holy Bull in February and the Grade 1 Florida Derby on Saturday.
Franco has now won six individual NYRA titles, including the 2018 Aqueduct winter and fall and, in 2019, both the Aqueduct winter and spring as well at the Belmont Park fall crown.
Drawing Away Stable, who earned a share of the owner title at both the 2019 Aqueduct spring meet and 2019 fall meet that concluded in December, was the outright winner in the 2020 winter meet with 19 wins, 13 runner-up finishes and 18 third-place efforts in 81 starts.
The win total was nine more than runner-up Michael Dubb. Drawing Away Stable, an ownership syndicate, posted earnings of $740,793.