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Feature: Sister Mary Vincent Remembers Risen Star

Racehorses, especially the greatest ones, touch many lives. They slip into this world on spindly legs with flaring nostrils, and anyone who has witnessed the miracle of foaling will tell you this in itself is a remarkable memory. As they grow and develop, diamonds in the rough, those who know them as weanlings and yearlings take pride in recalling that first hint of promise. Then the regimen begins, when horsemen – some with decades of experience, others just getting started – channel Thoroughbred talent to maximum potential.

Many will tell you greatness and ability cannot be made – that you simply have to stay out of the way – and this, in part, is true. But each runner carries the hopes and dreams of its connections – breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, grooms, hotwalkers, ferriers, veterinarians, those who have invested so much – in fleet-footed pursuit of victory.

Sometimes, witnesses marvel. Once in a while, a legend is born. For the people of New Orleans, Risen Star – whose name graces Saturday’s featured stakes race for Triple Crown hopefuls – was such a horse.

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“Risen Star? Oh, for God’s sake,” says Sister Mary Vincent, who remembers this story as if it were yesterday even though it happened more than 20 years ago. “Risen Star was an extraordinary horse. You want me to tell you what happened? Well, for Louie Roussel, I’d do just about anything.”

It was 1987. Sister Mary Vincent was 49, having dedicated her life to serving the poor, a nun since she had entered the novitiate at just 17 years old. Louie Roussel was 41, a lawyer, horseman, and devout Roman Catholic who 10 years prior had beaten throat cancer in what he called a “life-changing experience.” Risen Star, of course, was two years old.

The colt, a son of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, had been purchased by Roussel for $300,000 at the Calder Sale of 2-year-olds in training. His dam, Ribbon, was a graded stakes winner whose victories had come at Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Louisiana Downs – and, naturally, Fair Grounds. Roussel, majority owner and president of the latter track at the time, sold part of the runner to ebullient businessman Ronnie Lamarque, who was known throughout the state of Louisiana for his colorful personality and his massive automobile dealership – in that order.

While $300,000 may seem a fairly ordinary price by today’s standards, half of that was more than Lamarque had ever spent on a runner. It also would have been a pretty penny for Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns whose ministry was devoted to the care of the elderly, as Roussel was about to find out.

The order, serving New Orleans for 120 years, had come upon particularly hard financial times due to the cost of reparations to their facility, a relatively new building in Algiers that was plagued with a sinking foundation. Sister Mary Vincent, out on her fundraising rounds, soon found in Roussel what would become one answer to her problems.      

“I’d gone to see Louie with an old mentor of his from law school,” she recalls. “I didn’t know if he was going to help us or how he was going to help us, and I didn’t think of a racehorse, that’s for sure. His mentor said, ‘See if you can help the sisters, Louie. They do wonderful work.’ A little while later, he called me up and said, ‘Sister, I have a deal for you.’”

The deal was simple. Risen Star had talent, sure – he had broken his maiden first time out by a length in the Minstrel Stakes at Louisiana Downs – but Roussel wasn’t above a providential push.

“I have this horse making his second start, and I think he’s going to be a good runner,” he told Sister Mary Vincent. “Say a little prayer for us, and I’ll give you a donation.”

Risen Star didn’t win that race, the Sport of Kings Futurity, but he ran second. Roussel made a donation anyway. When the horse won again, he donated again. The next season, Risen Star began his 3-year-old campaign at the Fair Grounds. There, he won three of his next four starts, including the Louisiana Derby, his only loss being a runner-up finish in the Lecomte. Sister Mary Vincent went out to the stable area at Fair Grounds to see him – quietly, of course, without any publicity. She remembers a very tall horse, spirited and quite beautiful.

“Oh, yes, Sister, the horse is doing good, I’m going to take him to the Kentucky Derby,” Roussel said. “Keep praying, if you would.”

The colt went to Keeneland for the Lexington Stakes, which he won. Then he headed to Churchill Downs, where Roussel’s little secret spread when intrepid members of the national media caught wind of the deal. Roussel could have practically made an announcement over the loudspeakers: “This horse has to run well, the Little Sisters of the Poor are praying for it!’”

“I could have gotten into a lot of trouble,” Sister Mary Vincent laughs. “Just imagine, ‘Now the Sisters are praying for racehorses?!’”

In fact, even though Risen Star finished third behind Winning Colors in the 114th Derby, the Sister fielded phone calls from more than one hopeful parishioner.

“We never went to his races; it was bad enough we were praying for him to win,” she says. “A couple of guys called me up and said, ‘Oh, Sister, if you pray for our lottery tickets and we win, we’ll give you a donation!’ I said, ‘If I could pray for a winning lottery ticket, I would have gone down there and bought one for this home.’”

Sometimes, Sister Mary Vincent wondered if she should even be praying for the big colt’s victory. Before the Preakness, she told Roussel that she would only pray nothing bad happened to the horse or his rider, “and I hope he does real well.”

“Did you ever watch a football game where either team could win in the last minute and you don’t know what’s going to happen? That’s how I felt,” she recalls. “I’ll never forget it; he won by just a nose

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By the time Roussel took the colt to Belmont, the Sister and the 122 residents of the New Orleans home were rooting for Risen Star’s success. The nuns made star-shaped cookies, someone had T-shirts printed. Sister Mary Vincent was interviewed on television, and the New York Times did a story about her involvement in the horse’s success – “This Horse Has a Prayer.” Before the race, as everyone gathered around a television that had been donated specifically so they could watch and cheer the big runner on, the Sister spent a quiet moment in the chapel.

“I said, ‘Lord, Louis really wants this horse to win,’” she recalls. “It could help our old people, and I want to know if this is the right thing to do.’”

She made three stipulations in her request. First, that no one would be injured in the race, “Second, I said, ‘Please don’t let the horse win by a nose, that’s too hard on my heart,’ and third, ‘Please don’t have the jockey hit the horse; you know I hate when they do that anyway.’”

The 120th Belmont was a cleanly-run race, with no injuries to runners or riders. Coming down off the turn on that big sandy oval, Risen Star practically flew. He won by more than 14 lengths, and one of the first things jockey Eddie Delahoussaye said as he got off the horse was, “I didn’t even have to touch him with the stick.”

Lamarque gave the Sisters a car. Roussel donated 10 percent of the winnings. It was quite an exciting and extraordinary time, both for the horse’s connections and for the charity he aided with his victory.

“After that, I always felt that God can use anybody he wants to help the poor,” Sister Mary Vincent says. “He used that horse to run for us, we were in great financial difficulty, and I know that horse was sent by God at the time. The whole town loved that horse, and he’ll always hold a special place in my heart.”

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The New Orleans chapter of Little Sisters of the Poor closed right after Hurricane Katrina – issues with the building’s sinking foundation became too great for the organization to justify repairing – and the residents were moved to other chapters across the country. Sister Mary Vincent herself had already moved on, going first to Philadelphia, then New Jersey, before finally settling in Pittsburgh where she’s worked for the past eight years.

Risen Star never raced after the Belmont – a leg injury that had plagued him throughout his Triple Crown campaign proved to be career-ending – but he did go on to receive Eclipse Award honors as that season’s champion 3-year-old colt. He was retired to stud and stood at Walmac International near Lexington, Ky., but succumbed to an early death after a bout of colic on March 13, 1998. It was 10 years to the day after his victory in the Louisiana Derby.

Still, while years have passed since the colt’s 3-year-old campaign, every once in a while Roussel sends a donation along to Sister Mary Vincent. In Pittsbugh, she has named a garden at the home in honor of his parents. In New Orleans, Saturday’s 3-year-old Kentucky Derby prep at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots is called the Risen Star.

“Louie was a very kind man and even now when his horses do well we get a little donation from him. We pray for him every day, for Louie and his family,” the Sister says. “God’s work starts in small ways and if we let Him guide it, it goes well and he takes care of us – sometimes in the most unusual ways.”