THE STORY OF RICKS NATURAL STAR
by Bill Mooney
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.
‘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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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!
Visit the BC web page
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)