BALTIMORE - No woman ever saddled a Preakness winner. Starting in 1968, 14 have tried, and only the late Nancy Alberts, with Magic Weisner in 2002, could finish second. On Saturday, Linda Rice, the most distinguished female trainer in American history, will debut in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Rice has made many gender breakthroughs, including winning the 2009 title at world-class Saratoga, a first for a woman at a major track. Her 1998 milestone was a Grade I victory at tradition-rich Keeneland. Since 1987 Rice, from Floral Park, has sent out more than 1,200 winners, so she's been big time for a long time. As for the chance to make history at Pimlico, all she said was, "That's what people tell me.''
The 50-year-old Wisconsin native will saddle long shot Kid Cruz, whom his original owner, Black Swan Stable, named for Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. Unlike his namesake, noted for quick acceleration off the line of scrimmage, Kid Cruz is slow out of the gate. He came from far back to dominate his last two races, the 11/16-mile Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico and the 11/8-mile Private Terms at Laurel, by 31/2 and four lengths, respectively. Here's Dave Rodman's call of the Private Terms: "And from 25 lengths behind here comes Kid Cruz on the far outside, and he's going to be a going-away winner."
Repeating that Silky Sullivan surge against heavily favored California Chrome Saturday will be much tougher.
"Obviously, the Preakness is a big jump in class,'' Rice said Monday, "but we're hoping for an improved performance that will be good enough to get a big check, if not a win. He closed well into slow paces in his last two races, which was really hard to believe. The pace will be a lot faster, so he'll have to be closer early, and hopefully he'll be able to keep up.''
Need-to-lead types Social Inclusion and Bayern skipped the Derby, where the anticipated hot fractions never materialized. If these two go at it, it could help set up Kid Cruz's late move under Julian Pimentel. If he runs his race, he'll be passing tired horses in the stretch, with the big question being how many.
"People are saying it was a slow Derby, but despite his humble beginnings and his pedigree, California Chrome won it very impressively,'' Rice said. "He'll be very tough to beat.''
Unlike California's favorite son, Kid Cruz has a regal pedigree, sired by 1999 Belmont Stakes champion Lemon Drop Kid. Yet Kid Cruz's seventh-place finish on turf in his career debut was anything but classic, so trainer Bill Mott entered him on dirt next time for a $50,000 tag, and Vina Del Mar Thoroughbreds claimed him for Rice out of a six-length win last Nov. 22 at Aqueduct. A month later, Black Swan Stable had seller's remorse and bought back into Kid Cruz for 45 percent.
"Going from a maiden claimer to a Triple Crown race adds a little excitement,'' Rice said, "sort of rags to riches.''
Former trainer John DeStefano set up Black Swan in 2008, and Bob Greenhut has been his client since 1978. Both are longtime Giants fans. Greenhut produced "about 20 Woody Allen movies,'' including "Annie Hall,'' "Manhattan'' and "Broadway Danny Rose.'' Also among Greenhut's credits are "A League of Their Own,'' "The King of Comedy'' and "Working Girl.''
Greenhut said he met Cruz and his longtime partner, Elaina Watley, three years ago. "Elaina showed some interest in the horses,'' he said, "so we said let's see if we can name a yearling after Victor.'' Cruise Control was taken, so the second choice was Kid Cruz, a play off Lemon Drop Kid. He's not the first Black Swan horse that's saluted a New York athlete. In 2011, Sean Avery, named for the controversial former Ranger, won a Saratoga stakes. "Bob and I go way back with all the New York teams,'' DeStefano said.
Greenhut said there's been talk of bringing Kennedy Cruz, the couple's 2-year-old daughter, to Rice's Belmont Park barn to pet Kid Cruz and feed him a carrot.
"I'm glad the horse is doing well,'' Cruz said. "I've known about him for a couple years, so it's exciting to see him actually get to this point, and hopefully he wins.'' Cruz said he can't attend the Preakness because of his schedule. So no matter what, there will be no salsa dancing in the winner's circle.
The run for the Black-Eyed Susans has another Big Blue subplot, because Chris Mara, the Giants' senior vice president for personnel, owns part of General a Rod, who ran 11th in the Derby. Greenhut said he and Mara are casual acquaintances.
"I was rooting for Chris in the Derby,'' Greenhut said. "But I said that if Kid Cruz ever comes up against Chris' horse, I won't be rooting for him.''
With Kimberley A. Martin