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Stories about your favorite retired racehorses. For archived stories, click here.

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Barbara Luna has influenced a multitude of facets of the Thoroughbred industry. The New Jersey native rode retired racehorses as a child and loved attending the races at Monmouth Park as a teenager. Walking hots in college led to breaking yearlings at Xalapa Farm for late trainer John Ward Jr. while attending graduate school at the University of Kentucky. Next came a job galloping horses at Keeneland and working in the research department of The Blood-Horse magazine.

Returning to New Jersey, Luna parlayed her experiences into a position as paddock analyst host of handicapping shows at Monmouth and the Meadowlands, then Gulfstream Park and Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing). Horse ownership followed, and eventually, a trainer’s license. 

In 2006, she was named executive director of the ReRun Thoroughbred adoption organization in 2006. In 2009 she and Michael Ballezzi, then executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, established Turning For Home, the Thoroughbred retirement program at Parx. As a trainer, Luna well understood the problems faced when a horse is no longer competitive.

All along, she felt a pull to devote her life to off-track Thoroughbreds. That, and a fascination and desire to live in a historic southern town, led to the 2012 purchase of a farm in Appomattox, Va., a few miles from where Confederate and Union generals Lee and Grant signed documents ending the Civil War in 1865.

She named her new home War Horses at Rose Bower (for the area in which the property is located) and set out to rehabilitate horses ages 7 and up who made more than 70 lifetime starts. 

“Those are the real warhorses,” Luna said.

While rehoming remains the original objective, she ended up with several permanent residents.

One such pensioner is Helicopter, now 17. He came with the proper credentials: 94 starts with a record of 30-16-13 and $557,975 earned. Bred in Florida by Hidden Point Farm, he is by graded stakes-winning Storm Cat stallion Three Wonders out of the Septieme Ciel mare Heaven’s Run.  

Dr. Jean White initially contacted Luna on behalf of Helicopter’s owners Richard Ravin, Christine Wagner and trainer Larry Rivelli. They discovered War Horses at Rose Bower in their search for a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited retirement operation.

Even a cursory review of Helicopter’s lifetime record gives the impression that “war horse” could have been coined for him. He made 14 winless starts as a 2-year-old in 2008 for owner/trainer Daniel Hurtak, all at Calder Race Course in Florida. In early 2009 he shifted to Hawthorne for owner/trainer Wayne Catalano, breaking his maiden there March 28. Two months later he changed hands again, winning a $5,000 claimer at Arlington Park for Rivelli and owners Mario Donato and Wagner. 

In Illinois, Helicopter was a different horse – a virtual ATM machine who just kept winning and getting checks. On July 26, 2009, Helicopter won at Arlington Park and was claimed by Dale Bennett for Dyedra Kademoglou. In his next start at the same track in September 2009, Helicopter was back running for Rivelli, Donato and Wagner. He never left Rivelli’s barn, his career continuing for another seven years. 

Helicopter took his races with him, winning at Arlington (15 times), Presque Isle Downs (eight times), Hawthorne, Keeneland, Woodbine. From Dec. 19, 2009, through June 18, 2010, he won six consecutive races. His only black type came with a third in Woodbine’s listed Valedictory Stakes Dec. 5, 2010. His nine wins in 2009 were the fourth most in North America. He backed up that season with seven more wins in 2010.

“When Helicopter first arrived here, all Dr. White told me was he was ‘quirky’ and needed front shoes,” Luna said. “He’s always been a good boy and well behaved, turned out with three buddies. So I finally had a chance recently to ask her what that meant. Her response was that his sire, Three Wonders, was a very difficult horse that passed his stubbornness on to Helicopter. She is still a huge fan of this sweet horse, and she credits his trainer, Larry Rivelli, with his success.”

“Once Larry figured that Helicopter wanted to do things his own way, he began winning,” White said. 

Rivelli played to his horse’s strengths. Helicopter was a synthetic-track and distance specialist. Twenty-five of his wins came on all-weather surfaces. Mornings were a different story. 

“You could never get him to hurry,” Rivelli said. “He was horse that tied up a lot. He needed to be out of his stall moving, so he was allowed to walk around the backstretch with his rider. It took him about an hour to gallop and come back . . . and then he always had to have his peppermints afterward.”

In the gelding’s final race Sept. 24, 2016, Arlington Park track announcer John Dooley called, “Here comes the all-weather warrior!” as the 10-year-old motored down the stretch to win as the favorite in a $7,500 claimer. 

Since settling in at Rose Bower seven years ago, Helicopter enjoys everything his way and on his time. And proving it is indeed a small world, he even found an old fan in tiny Appomattox.

“I met Don and Nancy Wilks when I asked if I could hold a fundraiser for War Horses at Rose Bower in this really cool old building of theirs,” Luna said. “They had moved here from Pennsylvania, but Don was born and raised in Illinois. He, his brother and father followed horse racing.”

“We loved handicapping the races,” Don Wilks said. “We’d look over the newspapers and try to pick winners for the day.”

When Luna explained her program to the Wilks, Don immediately recognized Helicopter’s name. 

“My brother saw Helicopter’s last race,” Wilks said.

Don and Nancy soon visited the farm with their family and grandchildren, staying all day to help Luna prepare for her upcoming TAA inspection.

“Even after doing this job for so many years, I still get very excited when a new horse arrives,” Luna said. “My board members come out to meet and greet, and it is so much fun to photograph, see the new guy, then learn their habits and personalities.”

“I just think it’s so funny that it took me several years to ask Dr. White what she meant about Helicopter’s quirks, and to find out that he had an amazing fan club. Although he’s not a stakes winner or a fancy horse, he still has a great following even though Arlington Park is gone and Helicopter is living out in my field here in Virginia. I appreciate him even more now.” 

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