This article was originally published by the now defunct Thoroughbred Times whose assets have been sold off and whose website is now extinct.
As a service to Slew's readers, I am reproducing the text from this article. All credits go to The Thoroughbred Times, Bill Mooney and any and all owners to the rights to this story.

And of course: Rick himself!


by Bill Mooney

The most unlikely horse to ever run in the Breeders’ Cup is living the autumn of his years at Sunnyside Farm near Paris, Kentucky. The reference here is to Ricks Natural Star,the bottom-level claimer who went postward in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Woodbine. “He can be an ornery sun-of-a-gun, but Ricks Natural Star has become woven to the fabric of the farm,” said Robert Copelan, D.V.M., who owns Sunnyside in partnership with Jeff Thornbury.

“We’ve had ‘Rick’ nearly a decade and a half. His appetite’s good. We vaccinate and worm him regularly, and he shares a 15-acre paddock with whatever-odd lead ponies we bring in from the racetrack.” The paddock winds around the main house at Sunnyside on the west side of Route 27, known to locals as Cynthiana Road. Roughly two centuries ago, the first barrels of Kentucky bourbon were produced by Solomon Spears on the acreage where Ricks Natural Star resides. A stream flows through the paddock, which provides Ricks Natural Star with fresh drinking water at his pleasure.

“He’s an outdoor horse,” said Jeff Thornbury Jr., one of his caretakers. “During the winter months ‘Rick’ loves to roll in the snow. He still likes to run and these days can do it only  when he wants to, and never when he has to.”

Ricks Natural Star is now 22 years old. His career statistics include 25 starts, two wins, seven placings, and purse earnings of $6,092. The best payday the gelding ever had came via maiden allowance company at Ruidoso Downs in his native state of New Mexico, when his four-length score gained a check worth $1,260. Yet, some three years later, the owner-trainer of Ricks Natural Star, a New Mexico veterinarian named William H. Livingston, entered him in the $2-million Turf. At the time, Ricks Natural Star had not raced in 14 months. His last effort had been a ninth-place finish for a $3,500 tag at Ruidoso.

He had never raced farther than one mile. He had never run on the grass. Ricks Natural Star had finished well up the track in claiming company as low as $2,500. But Livingston sent him forth in the 1 1/2 mile Turf against world-class competition that included Pilsudski (Ire), Singspiel (Ire), Swain (Ire), Shantou, Windsharp, Awad, Luna Wells (Ire), Chief Bearhart, Diplomatic Jet and Marlin – all of whom had already triumphed (in some cases multiple times) in Group/Grade 1 races. Opinion was widespread that Livingston had parted ways with reality. He said he had developed an equine vaccine that had rid Ricks Natural Star of a bacterial infection that had compromised the gelding’s soundness. Livingston planned to use the Breeders’ Cup to showcase, on an international stage, what he believed were the extraordinary healing powers of the vaccine. He took out a $40,000 mortgage on his house to pay the pre-entry and entry fees for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, loaded Ricks Natural Star onto his van and headed across the continent for Woodbine. Breeders’ Cup rules stated that any who had not raced 30 days prior to entering had to have at least one published workout during that period. Livingston fulfilled the obligation by stopping at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, where Ricks Natural Star went six furlongs in 1:21.46 (which was more than 13 seconds slower than the Remington track record for the distance).

Five days before the Breeders’ Cup, Livingston and Ricks Natural Star arrived at Woodbine. If no more than 13 other horses entered and Livingston’s fee payment check cleared, Ricks Natural Star was in. Media coverage was extensive. During Breeders’ Cup week, Ricks Natural Star was featured on the Daily Racing Form’s front page for three consecutive editions. His morning line odds were 99-to-1, but at post time they were only 56.15-to-1 as the longest shot in the 14-horse field. But it is also a fact that over the years, 216 horses have run in Breeders’ Cup races at longer odds than Ricks Natural Star was accorded that day. “He should have been 5,000-to-1,” said Lisa McFarland, who rode Ricks Natural Star in the Turf. McFarland, age 49, now operates a small stable with her husband, trainer Tom Schell, at Calder Race Course in South Florida. McFarland’s race riding days culminated in 2006. She had 631 mounts, and won with 42 of them. But Ricks Natural Star remains freshly in her mind, far more than most of the other horses she rode.

“I think a lot of people bet two dollars and even more than that on him because he had gained such celebrity,” McFarland said. “This was the case for many of Woodbine’s backside workers. When Livingston arrived there, he didn’t have a feed tub or water bucket. He didn’t have a saddle or a bridle. I walked up to him and said, ‘I’ve got a saddle. If you need someone to exercise your horse, I’ll do it.’ ” The following morning, McFarland schooled Ricks Natural Star “in company with two or three other horses breaking from the starting gate,” she said.

“He went about 50 yards, stopped cold, and began backing up. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ “Guys on the gate crew were yelling to me that I had to go back and do it again,” McFarland said. “So I dropped my irons about ten holes to be as close to the saddle as I could, sort of John Wayne-style. I wanted my legs to be in as close contact with the horse as possible. “That same day, the entries came out and I was named aboard Ricks Natural Star in the Turf. I used the same technique when I rode him in the race that I did during that schooling session.” “Every principle of handicapping says that this seven-year-old is hideously overmatched,” opined James Ambroff-Tahan in the Racing Form’s Breeders’ Cup day edition. But Ricks Natural Star gave it a try. He broke from the gate cleanly and was in second position, trailing the pacesetting Diplomatic Jet by just a half-length through the opening half-mile. And at that point, the rest of the field began swarming past Ricks Natural Star like the waters of the Johnstown Flood. “I thought, ‘Oh, [expletive,] we’ve still got over three-quarters of a mile to go,’” said McFarland. “Ricks Natural Star was just galloping along, doing what he could do, while everybody else was drawing away from us. We ended up a quarter-mile behind the winner [Pilsudski.]

It took us something like an extra 28 seconds to cross the wire. The Racing Form chart stated we were ‘outdistanced,’ but we did finish. And after crossing the wire, Ricks Natural Star didn’t want to pull up.”

But he was bleeding, rather substantially, from the lungs. Two days later, Livingston filed a formal complaint alleging that Woodbine stewards had instructed McFarland to keep Ricks Natural Star away from all the other horses— therefore voiding any chance he had of winning the race. The complaint was promptly dismissed, and the Ontario Racing Commission informed Livingston that he would never again be allowed to run a horse within their jurisdiction until he passed a trainer’s test. Livingston then embarked on another cross-continent trip. Twenty days following the Breeders’ Cup, Ricks Natural Star raced against Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos Race Course in Southern California. He finished sixth in the seven-horse field.

Ricks Natural Star made one more start after that, at Turf Paradise in Arizona on January 12, 1997. He finished eighth. A trainer, O. Dwain Grissom, claimed him for $7,500 out of the race for Larry Weber, a pharmaceutical and vitamin supplement entrepreneur, who also owned and bred Thoroughbreds. Weber knew Copelan—both were graduates of Ohio State University—and Thornbury had trained some of Weber’s horses.

“I was disgusted with the traveling circus that seemed to be surrounding Ricks Natural Star,” said Weber. “It was grossly unfair to the horse and embarrassing to racing.” Accordingly, Weber paid the claim price and immediately announced that Ricks Natural Star was being retired. Arrangements were then made to send the gelding to Sunnyside. “We thought for a while about converting him into a lead pony,” said Copelan. “We put our best exercise rider, Dwayne Puckett, on him, and ‘Rick’ threw Dwayne so high that I’m not sure he’s come down yet.”

It appeared Ricks Natural Star was informing all and everyone, “Desist! I have had enough!”

The message was noted, and the gelding has enjoyed the leisure of having no responsibilities since. Weber continues to pay his veterinary bills. Sunnyside absorbs the tabs for everything else. Over the years, Ricks Natural Star has gained admirers. Some have expressed ardent emotions. “We think your previous owner should be shot,” stated one letter with a trio of signatures that was mailed to the gelding. “We apologize for the human race. Carrot money is enclosed.” A fan from Tennessee wrote, “I about cried when Ricks Natural Star went down in defeat ... I was mad because people were making fun of him.” Visitors have come from as far away as Northern California. They pose for photographs with Ricks Natural Star, and vow to bequeath the pictures to their grandchildren.

Reporters from distant places have stayed in touch. “The Loss That Spawned a Legend,” was the headline for a Miami Herald article celebrating the tenth anniversary of the gelding’s Breeders’ Cup effort. Sue Rosenbach, from Bristol, Connecticut, is arguably the most devoted fan of Ricks Natural Star. She has come to Sunnyside to see him on multiple occasions and has written nearly a dozen letters to his handlers. In 2004, Rosenbach proposed a “halter swap”—if Sunnyside would send her one of the gelding’s old halters (“You can even send the halter without cleaning it,” she said), Rosenbach would provide a new one, complete with nameplate.

It took a few months, but the transaction was completed.

“It was his underdog status that I found appealing,” said Rosenbach. “Ricks Natural Star became the butt of a lot of people’s jokes. And that’s sad, because he wasn’t a joke. He was a legitimate racehorse who was over-classed. He didn’t know what kind of company he was in. He gave his best, and what more can you ask?” “Thinking about the story of Ricks Natural Star, one of the things that bothers me the most involves the trip from New Mexico to Woodbine,” said Copelan, who is 86, but still puts in full work days and retains an analytical mind. “While that vet, his owner, slept in a motel, ‘Rick’ was tied to the bumper of his truck. It’s inexcusable to treat a horse in such an undignified manner.”

“I never met Livingston, and never felt the need or cause to do so,” said Weber, who is now 74, and spends his summers in Saratoga Springs, New York and his winters in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Livingston didn’t seem to be much concerned about the care he should have given to Ricks Natural Star. His main concern was promoting this miracle medication he thought he’d developed.”

But McFarland’s views remain different. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about Livingston,” she said. “He was nice to me. And I felt sorry for him—he experienced so much ridicule, and still does.

He had a dream. So did I. Life would have turned out a lot different for all of us if that sucker had won the race.”    

Bill Mooney is a Thoroughbred Times contributing writer

POSTSCRIPT: I was present on that crisp Canadian autumn afternoon in 1996, when Rick's Natural Star was sent to the post with the best and most talanted horses in the world. I still have, tucked away in the Daily Racing Form from that day, a $2 tote ticket for a win bet on Rick. The ticket, now faded to nothing, still evokes the amazing memory of watching Rick head to the front, and then cross the finish line as if from another time zone, but no less proud. And while I collected on Pilsudski as the winner of the race (thanks to my dear wife), Rick is still, decades later, the memory. - Slew

See the race here!
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POST POSTSCRIPT: I have just viewed the race after not having seen it in years. The original version as shown on the Breeders Cup website was complete. It included the final 30 seconds and preserved that moment when Rick's Natural Star crossed the Breeders Cup finish line, alone but a beloved star. This current version on Youtube has unfortunately, cut the replay short. The editor was no doubt, a mis-guided millennial with no sense of history. (Feb. 2018)

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Posted: September, 2016
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