In five years, when she presumably will have completed her 25th year of training, Linda Rice will be eligible for the National Racing Hall of Fame. I don’t know when — I refuse to say if — it will happen, but she deserves to be elected.
Rice trained Voodoo Song to his fourth win of this Saratoga Race Course meet Saturday in the Grade III, $300,000 Saranac on the turf, and the story upstaged the two Grade I races, including the $750,000 Woodward featuring the top-ranked horse in North America, Gun Runner.
Furthermore, Rice entered her 3-year-old colt in the stakes race as a Plan B because he was going to be deep on the also-eligible list of an allowance race.
“I said, ‘oh, hell, put him in the Saranac,’ ” Rice said.
Well, it wasn’t quite as carefree as that sounds. It took a sharp training eye to realize that her horse is red hot right now.
On July 22, the second day of the meet, Voodoo Song ran in a $40,000 claiming race over 1 1/16 miles. The speed horse led gate to wire — as he’s done all four times — to win by 5 1/4 lengths on a firm turf. Next came an allowance race on July 26 at 1 3/8 miles, over a good turf. He won that by three-quarters of a length.
We thought we’d seen the last of him on Aug. 23 in another allowance at 1 1/16 miles, which he won by a length, but Rice knew differently.
“Part of the reason I ran him back so many times is he likes the course, he likes the configuration,” Rice said. “Obviously it hasn’t rained much, he likes the firm going. And that could change in the next 30 days or six weeks. So I thought let’s take advantage of it, we can rest him later.”
Rice isn’t always that way. She said she’s a firm believer in giving horses plenty of time off when they’re not right, and the statistics back her up.
“But when they’re good, run them,” she said.
Rice was concerned early in the Saranac because the clock showing the quarter- and half-mile fractions was obviously wrong, specifically too slow. But she felt the horse had a good pace going. Jockey Jose Lezcano slowed his pace a little in the far turn of the 1 1/8-mile race, but had enough left to get away from the talented field and win by a neck over Yoshida in 1 minute, 46.18 seconds.
In a field of nine, Voodoo Song ran against four who were either graded stakes winners or graded stakes-placed. And it’s a copout to argue the horse’s racing style won him the race and discount the victory. If you know the turf is firm and there’s a front-runner who could run away with it, you change tactics. Trainers do it all the time on sloppy tracks, and sometimes on perfectly fine tracks just because.
From $40,000 claimer to Grade III winner, with two races in between, in 35 days. The last horse to win four times at a Saratoga meet was Hall of Famer Native Dancer in 1952, and even that isn’t the record. In 1927, a 2-year-old horse named Novelty won five races here in 28 days. But these days, when horses are given month-long rests as a matter of course, what Rice did with Voodoo Song is superb training.
This meet alone, Rice trained Voodoo Song to four wins and New York’s Finest to three. She famously conditioned City Zip to three wins in Saratoga’s graded stakes for 2-year-olds in 2000. In 2008, she trained the first four finishers of the Mechanicville Stakes.
Rice’s record should speak for itself. She became the first woman to win a training title at a major track in 2009 by capturing Saratoga. She has since won four more on the New York circuit. Her 16 wins at this year’s Saratoga meet puts her in third place behind Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher, who have barns and barns full of the finest racehorses money can buy.
Without mentioning the graded stakes she has won over the years, she has won enough “big races” to merit consideration, even if it doesn’t, so far, include a Triple Crown race or Breeders’ Cup race.
At this year’s Hall of Fame induction, it was mentioned that fewer than one percent of the participants, equine and human combined, reach the hall of fame. And while that’s good and makes it special, it should not be ignored that it includes one female jockey (Julie Krone) and one female steeplechase trainer (Janet Eliot). There are no female flat trainers in the establishment, and honestly, I can’t think of one that has deserved it until now.
And while I say Rice deserves the nod on merit alone, it also can’t be ignored that women in this sport are fighting gender stereotypes 24/7. For the most part, they don’t get as good horses or as good mounts as their male counterparts.
The fact that Rice has done what she’s done while battling that speaks volumes. Saturday was just another example.
Gun Runner delivers
Gun Runner, a 1-5 favorite, hardly needed any help in winning the Woodward, but Neolithic was happy to provide it in the form of a hot pace.
Neolithic ran a half-mile in 46.56 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.45, with Gun Runner comfortably stalking. Florent Geroux asked the top horse in the land for run, and the 4-year-old colt had plenty to give. He opened up a 6-length lead in the stretch and won by 10 1/4 lengths. The final time of 1:47.43 was the fastest running since the race was moved to Saratoga in 2006.
“With Todd (Pletcher) having two talented horses in there, you did expect him to send one,” winning trainer Steve Asmussen said. “It was expected, and Gun Runner handled it like he’s supposed to, and with his experience at this level, proved dominant.”
Asmussen said he will train Gun Runner up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in early November.