Linda Rice had tried college, lasting a couple of years at Penn State while realizing that studying bloodlines, speed ratings and past performance charts for horses interested her far more than what she was studying in computer science classes.
"I knew my future was somewhere else," she said.
Rice returned to the family farm near Harrisburg, Pa., and went back to the life she knew growing up, when she worked with her father, Clyde, a successful trainer, her mother, Jean, and her three brothers on horse farms in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Eventually, Rice set out on her own, leaving Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa., for the New York racing scene in the late 1980s and opening her own stable in 1992.
"When she first started going out on her own, it was very difficult for clients to understand that she may be only in her mid-20s, but she's got 20 years of experience with these horses," Jean Rice said last week. "She grew up with them, she's been in the barn forever."
Linda Rice compares her formative years in New York to finishing what she started at Penn State.
"It was like going to college," Rice said Monday from the her office near Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. "This is where I got the rest of my education."
Rice graduated with honors, turning her fledgling career into one that has included besting some of the sport's most bejeweled trainers and becoming, at age 50, one of the most successful in her field in the country.
On Saturday, Rice could make history by becoming the first female trainer to have a horse win a Triple Crown race; she'll run Kid Cruz in the 139th Preakness Stakes.
"I think she works hard and pays attention to detail, the good ones usually do," said Jerry Bailey, the retired Hall of Fame jockey turned racing analyst. "She follows the Golden Rule for trainers, keep yourself in good company and your horses in bad. She places her horses in races they can win."
Considering her string of successes over the past two decades — including some 1,200 wins, more than $40 million in earnings and four seasonal training titles in New York since 2009 — it seems surprising that Rice is racing one of her own horses in a Triple Crown event for the first time.
It doesn't shock Rice.
"Everyone stabled here at Belmont Park is in hopes of someday finding themselves with a Triple Crown horse," she said. "I'm not alone in that venture.
"Over the years I've had a lot more horses that have wanted to run on the grass in my barn versus long dirt horses. The other thing is that I'm not interested in running in these races if I don't have a valid shot to win, or at least hit the board."
Bailey, who like Rice made his reputation by winning on New York tracks, said Rice is in good company with other trainers who have found success without ever saddling up a horse for a Triple Crown race.
"Some of the best trainers in the world don't get here very often," Bailey said. "I don't think it's had anything to do with the success she's had as a female trainer, a lot of very successful trainers don't really want to push their young horses to the point to where they make the Triple Crown."
Yet Kid Cruz co-owner Steven Brandt and others believe there's some sexism involved.
How else can you explain Rice not getting a horse with Triple Crown potential after beating out the likes of Todd Pletcher at Saratoga in 2009, becoming the first woman in New York to win a training title? She later tied for titles in 2011 at Belmont and Aqueduct Racetrack, then won outright at Aqueduct in 2012.
"She has scratched and clawed and elbowed and battled to find her space in a predominantly male industry," said older brother Brian Rice, who breaks and trains horses in Ocala, Fla. "She has never wanted to be recognized as a woman trainer, just as a trainer at the top of the game. She's been a force to be reckoned with and she's had limited support from major dollar client bases."
Said Brandt: "I think it's tough for a woman in this industry. I think they have to work harder to get the recognition. Linda has a couple of really good horses and some very good clients, but she also races horses in the middle lanes."
Rice said that winning her first title at Saratoga was certainly good for "attracting new business." Though she said that it didn't give her added confidence, "I do think it opened the eyes of the racing world that women could not only do the job, but do it very well."
Brian Rice said his baby sister has done as much as anyone in her field, given her resources.
"She's had to kind of create these horses out of the clay that was available to her," he said. "She has to shop at the lower end of the market. She has to find that special nugget and take it home and help it to be this special horse that's expected to succeed at the highest level."
Kid Cruz is a good example. Named for New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and initially trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, Rice claimed Kid Cruz for $50,000 for Brandt's Vina Del Mar Thoroughbreds stable the same day the horse broke his maiden with a six-length win at Aqueduct on Nov. 13.
After a four-length victory at Laurel on Mar. 8 in the $100,000 Private Terms Stakes — with Maryland-based jockey Julian Pimentel aboard — Kid Cruz's original owners, Black Swan Racing, bought back a stake in the horse. Kid Cruz also won easily with Pimentel in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico on April 19.
"It's exciting ... On paper, this will be a very, very tough race, a big step up in competition for Kid Cruz," Rice said. "But he is progressing nicely. We feel like he deserves a chance to be here."
As for sticking with the 33-year-old Pimentel, who has had one previous Preakness mount, Rice said, "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
Family of horse(wo)men
Rice's mother was just as influential, if not more, than her father. Jean Rice married into the business and eventually got her assistant trainer's license so she could help run the farm when her husband was out of town.
"I learned a tremendous amount from my father in terms of horses and horse psychology, about young horses and breaking and training them, about running a business," Rice said. "My mother was the backbone of the business. My dad was the workaholic type, always has been. I grew up training horses with my father, but none of it would have worked without my mother."
Rice is trying to keep the family business going, helping mentor her brother Wayne's daughter, a promising jockey. Taylor Rice finished college at Florida State, but eventually followed her aunt to New York, where at 25 she has become the leading apprentice rider and the fifth overall jockey at the recently finished Aqueduct meet.
"She comes from a family of very good horsemen," Linda Rice said. "My grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a great horseman and from what I've read there were several generations before him."
In Wisconsin, Rice's father grew up with Wayne Lukas, arguably the most successful trainer of his generation and one of the most dominant in the sport's history. Now she competes against her father's old friend and tries to keep an "appropriate distance," but knows Lukas is keeping an eye on her.
"I had a very nice colt win the Futurity at Belmont, he won by a nose and then he was disqualified," Rice recalled. "He was taken down [off the board] and placed second. Wayne gave me a hug. He knew I was disappointed. Obviously, if I needed help he would certainly give it to me, but I handle things pretty much on my own."
She has been doing it that way since childhood, when growing up with three older brothers "helps toughen you up in a hurry."
Brian Rice has become one of his sister's biggest admirers.
"She's a beautiful combination of her mom and her dad in terms of being a great student, a ferocious competitor, a fabulous horseman," he said. "What we're seeing in Linda's career is really what's on the inside of Linda. She is very, very capable and she's going to figure out the problem that's in front of her and succeed despite of the setbacks and challenges."