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'Undercover Boss' tribute race part of Arlington Park opening
By John Leusch | Daily Herald Staff

Meghan Rice


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Published: 4/28/2010 12:12 PM | Updated: 4/28/2010 8:15 PM

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Since becoming a jockey valet in 1988, Kenny Rice has spent a lot of time in the Arlington Park winner's circle.

His job has him there often to help collect the riders' equipment when they dismount their horses after each race.

But when Arlington Park opens its doors to start its 2010 meet today, Rice will be in the winner's circle for a very special moment.

Thanks to an episode of the CBS television series "Undercover Boss," there will be a race run today in honor of Rice's daughter Meghan Samantha, who was born with a heart defect and died in March 2009 at the age of 20.

While going undercover to work with Rice on his job at Arlington Park last summer, Churchill Downs Chief Operating Officer Bill Carstanjen bonded with the valet's story about his daughter during the taping of the show.

Carstanjen noticed the picture of Rice's daughter and then realized it was in memoriam.

"He kept that picture of her in front of him all day long," Carstanjen said. "All day, every day. There is a real dignity and strength to Kenny and it was a reminder to me that the company is a collection of people."

So touched, Carstanjen told Kenny he wanted to have a special tribute for Meghan, and the COO said he would make it happen on this season's opening day with a raced named in her honor.

It will be carded as today's third race and be titled the Meghan Samantha Rice Memorial.

Although it is easily the busiest week of the season for Carstanjen with the Kentucky Derby taking place at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Carstanjen could not miss being in Arlington Heights Thursday for Kenny and his family.

"I felt grateful I got an opportunity to get to know Kenny and learn his history," Carstanjen said. "That's not something I would ever have a chance to do from my corner office."

"Even though we will be 48 hours away from the Kentucky Derby and only 24 hours from the Kentucky Oaks, there is no place I'd rather be than with our team at Arlington Park kicking off its opening day." The Oaks is a 3-year filly stakes race on Friday that also draws a crowd of more than 100,000.

The fact that he can honor Rice and his daughter magnifies the day for Carstanjen.

"This makes it even more special," he said.

Meghan was the most special person in Kenny's life.

"She was with me all the time," Rice said of Meghan, who attended Palatine and New Athens high schools.

"I was so proud of her when she graduated. I knew it was hard for her at a new school, but she came through and made me proud."

Rice, his wife Tamara, and daughters Bryanna, 18, and Noelle, 14, will be in the winner's circle for the tribute to Meghan. Bryanna works part time in Chicago at Body & Soul Spas, and Noelle is a student at Schaumburg High School.

"The three sisters were more than sisters; they were best friends," Kenny said.

"It'll be nice and also sad," he said about the tribute. "But it's a nice way to remember Meghan. She'll be there watching for sure. She won't miss this."

Rice said his daughter was a staple at the track.

"She was there all the time," Kenny said. "Everyone knew her. If it weren't for Bill Thayer, we would not have had a proper burial. He helped us so much." Thayer is Arlington's senior vice president of racing.

"He loved her like his own daughter," Kenny said. "It really hit him hard. he made sure the burial all worked out. If not for him, it wouldn't have gotten done it all."

Rice said Thayer had all trainers donate to the cause, too.

"Mr. Richard (Duchossois), (trainer) Louie Roussell, each offered to pay for the whole thing and Frank Calabrese (Arlington's leading owner) gave $3,000.

"Anyone who knew Meghan missed her. She was just a great kid. There was nothing not to like about her. I was blessed to have her," Rice said.

"She wanted to be a vet tech. She loved horses and animals. That's probably what she is doing now in heaven. She's an angel helping the animals."

Rice still can't get over all the condolences he has received since the television show.

"You know how many people have stopped me?" he said. "Someone from New York even sent me a pendant that has Meghan on it galloping in heaven. For (Carstanjen) to get away this week and come here for this means so much to my family and me."

Rice was a talented baseball player at Ridgewood High School in Norridge and at the same time began his career as a jockey. He rode downstate at Fairmount Park and Cahokia Downs, as well as in Canada, West Virginia and California.

"I rode my last race at Santa Anita," said Rice, who now lives in Palatine.

After winning 280 races from the age of 17 to 23, weight issues forced him to leave the profession.

He then became the Arlington Park "silks" man and was in charge of coordinating the jockey's silks until the fire destroyed the old grandstand in 1985.

He became a jockey valet a few years later, working with many different riders over the years. His main client now is jockey Eduardo Perez.

Rice was seen working for jockey Inez Karlsson on "Undercover Boss," which taped last summer at Arlington.

"Nobody had any idea who (Carstanjen) was or that it was going to be for a TV show," Rice said. "I just thought it was showing us working on our jobs. I never thought he was the top boss.

"But he was first-class. He was a class act and down to earth, just like one of us."

Carstanjen is looking forward to his return to Arlington, where he worked undercover with three other Arlington employees.

"The show was about our company and its great employees," Carstanjen said. "I played the straight man and hopefully helped tell the story of our employees."

Carstanjen called it a "real privilege" to help make the show happen.

"I was proud of everyone on the Arlington team and hopefully the viewers got a chance to see how passionate and committed our team is to Arlington Park."