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OPINION | WALLY HALL: Modest breeder has huge role in Derby win

by Wally Hall | May 4, 2021 at 2:10 a.m.

When it was first learned that a horse in the Kentucky Derby had sold as a yearling for $1,000 there were some initial thoughts:

(A) The poor breeder who had to sell a horse that cheap.

(B) The horse probably was a pretender not a contender.

(C) Bob Baffert was running the horse in the Derby because the owner had Derby Fever.

All three thoughts shared a common thread: They were wrong.

Medina Spirit, winner of the 147th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, was indeed sold cheap at a yearling auction, but the breeder, Gail Rice, was going through a divorce and property was being sold and split. She's a veteran at selling her horses.

On Saturday, only the Bafferts, who were uncharacteristically overjoyed at the win, were more happy than Rice.

She was there. All smiles and said she was just happy to have been part of Medina's life for the first eight months.

She was quoted as saying she knew he was a runner the day he was born. He had the look.

Her name sent your trusty scribe into the archives, and lo and behold, she is a big part of the racing industry in Ocala, Fla., where breeding and training are huge businesses.

Ironically, the week of the Derby yours truly had several text-message exchanges with old friend Tom Lucci, who along with Jerry Izenberg, Bill Handleman, Robert Yates, me and assorted others shared a working area at the Derby for many years.

Lucci and Handleman, who both worked for papers in New Jersey, were infamous for their discussions about the races. In the South, we call them arguments.

One day they got loud. Lucci kept telling Handleman a horse was hurt and not to bet him. Understand both were (Handleman is now at the Monmouth Park in heaven) excellent handicappers and neither liked to be told anything about the horses or betting.

The debate went on for almost an hour and ended when Lucci walked out on the balcony and Handleman went to bet the horse.

I wasn't with them the next day when they found out the horse was put down after the race, a race he lost.

It was through Lucci the name Rice became familiar to me.

We had barely met in 1988, but on Derby morning while studying the form, Lucci was asked what he knew about a trainer, and he said she was great at taking troubled 2-year-olds and getting them back on the track.

My exact memory doesn't recall how much was won on the daily double but enough that it seemed fair to give Lucci 10%, which happened just before he headed to the ATM to rearm himself.

That trainer was Linda Rice, then a sister-in-law of Gail Rice.

Rice's ex-husband was a former jockey, and their daughter Taylor is a successful jockey at Hawthorne Race Course and is married to big time jockey Jose Ortiz.

Gail Rice continues to breed horses, but now it is on the 18-acre farm owned by her daughter and son-in-law.

The day Medina Spirit was born his mom couldn't produce milk, and Rice quickly substituted her only other brood mare for a few hours until mom, Mongolian Changa, could feed her baby.

A year later, Medina Spirit sold for $35,000 to Amr bin Fareer bin Mohammed bin Zedan, a Saudi Arabian businessman and international polo player who has been involved in thoroughbred racing for just five years.

Gail Rice has spent most of her life breeding and nurturing horses and by all accounts is hands on with every baby, and she was just as happy and thrilled that one of her babies who sold for just $1,000 not only made it to the Kentucky Derby, but won it.

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