01/10/2007 1:00AM

Ten years later, a whole new life


ARCADIA, Calif. - It was on Jan. 12, 1997, that Larry Weber made the short drive from his winter home in Scottsdale to Turf Paradise racetrack with the intention of claiming a horse. An owner and breeder with runners on both coasts, Weber was not, however, licensed in Arizona. After meeting with the general manager, the racing secretary, a trainer, and the stewards, Weber was given the okay to drop in a $7,500 claim in that day's third race for an 8-year-old gelding with lifetime earnings of barely $6,000.

"It was a Sunday, so the banks weren't open," Weber recalled. "They were kind enough to take a personal check."

Weber got the horse, and immediately shipped him off to a farm in Kentucky, thus ending the saga of Ricks Natural Star. At least, Weber's claim brought the publicly embarrassing, three-ring circus, borderline animal-abuse portion of the saga to an end, since the horse had become synonymous with rampant ego and institutional impotence at the very top of the racing game.

For those who were locked in a dark basement during the autumn of 1996, Ricks Natural Star was the bottom-level, Southwestern-circuit claimer who suddenly burst into national acclaim when his owner, a vet named William Livingston, insisted on running his horse in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Woodbine.

Breeders' Cup officials combed the finest of the fine print in their eligibility rules in an effort to block such a folly, but no luck. They pled with officials of the Ontario Racing Commission to find some reason to prevent the horse from entering, to no avail. Ricks Natural Star had been nominated to the Breeders' Cup program as a New Mexico foal, and Livingston was able to pony up the entry and starting fees. As long as the horse passed prerace vet muster, there was nothing down in black and white to prevent him from running on the same Breeders' Cup program as Serena's Song, Spinning World, Da Hoss, Lit de Justice, Alphabet Soup, Louis Quatorze, and Cigar.

To no one's surprise, the media lapped it up. Ricks Natural Star was compared to every mother's underdog, from the hapless British ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards to the earnest but overmatched Jamaican bobsled team.

There also were the dreary but significant issues of established form, inept training, and the very real possibility of disaster once Ricks Natural Star was asked to pit his modest ability against the likes of Singspiel, Swain, Pilsudski, and Chief Bearhart. While the general public chuckled at the down-home Livingston line, those who lived and loved the game were deeply concerned. Larry Weber was among them.

"I was infuriated by the whole story," Weber said this week from his Scottsdale home. "I didn't want to call any attention to myself, but it was clear the horse needed someone on his side."

To no one's surprise, Ricks Natural Star showed a bit of speed in the Turf and then stopped to a walk. A month later he was entered in a well-publicized race at Los Alamitos, but withdrawn. Weber had seen enough. The carnival had to end.

"I told Brian Mayberry, my California trainer, that if the horse came up for a claim I wanted to take him and then retire him," Weber said. "As it turned out, Brian wasn't able to be at Turf Paradise the day he ran. So I showed up and we got it done."

Fast-forward to right now. For the last 10 years, Ricks Natural Star has enjoyed life in a rolling, wooded, 20-acre field at the Sunnyside Farm of trainer Jeff Thornbury in Kentucky's Bourbon County. Weber has paid for all veterinary bills incurred by Ricks Natural Star, while the farm takes care of his daily feed and care. To them, he's just plain Rick, a happy 18-year-old on a pension.

"He looks like he's no more than 8 or 10 - well muscled, good coat, really a picture of health," said Thornbury, who trains on the Midwestern circuit. "We gave him a chance to be a riding horse, but it was clear it would take longer than it was worth. So's he's just been out there being a horse, enjoying life."

Whether or not the Breeders' Cup will be faced with another debacle like the Ricks Natural Star episode remains to be seen. Subsequent to the 1996 running of the Cup, minimum entry qualifications were established, barring any horse, 3 and up, who has started for a claiming price of $15,000 or less.

In the meantime, thank goodness for a samaritan as good as Larry Weber to come along and save the game from itself. Weber, a retired entrepreneur whose businesses included energy drinks and health foods, was never looking for a pat on the back, but he got one in 1996 when the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders honored him with its William Coman Award for service to the sport. Previous winners included Paul Mellon and John A. Bell.

And if karma counts for anything at all, Weber will be rewarded with an extra special 10-year anniversary gift on Feb. 12 at Three Chimneys Farm, where his stakes-placed mare Boozin' Susan is due to give birth to a foal by Smarty Jones.

"That's also my 70th birthday," Weber said. "You can bet I'll be there to greet the foal."