Office art is a window to the soul, and everywhere you look inside a Mount Pleasant work space roughly the size of a rodeo corral says Joe Rice should’ve been a cowboy.
Or should’ve written the song Toby Keith wrote. It precisely fits Rice’s lifelong love for the Old West, cowboys, camp fires. Mostly horses.
Rice was 5 when he took to Trigger while watching “The Roy Rogers Show.”
“Just such a beautiful horse,” Rice said.
He still has a Long Ranger figurine his mother gave him as an early present. His father never owned a horse but rented horses so Joe could ride at county parks. A horse was one of the first purchases Rice
made upon graduation from the University of South Carolina law school.
Rice, 69, eventually got very busy becoming one of the best, richest attorneys in the country. He and late former partner Ron Motley in 1998 became instant litigation legends as stars of the largest civil settlement in U.S. history, $246 billion from tobacco companies agreeing to pay 46 states over 25 years. Rice has been involved in other massive civil negotiations: 9/11 cases, the BP Oil spill, asbestos. The list keeps growing.
But there’s always been that want to saddle up.
The most prominent display in the fifth floor Motley Rice office is a painting of Thunder, Rice’s all-time favorite animal: age 32, still living on the family spread in Awendaw. Elsewhere are horse photos, horse sculptures and horse books.
More mementoes are in an adjoining conference room – they call it The Motley – with a panoramic view of the Cooper River, the USS Yorktown and the Charleston peninsula. Rice on Friday sat at the head of a table buzzing about his newest horse tale with little boy joy.
A first foray into “The Sport of Kings” is a partial interest in Confidence Game, a 3-year-old colt set to run May 6 in the 149th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
“Goosebumps,” he said.
Rice has spent big on other sports ventures, including moving two million cubic yards of earth and adding 75 feet of elevation to Lowcountry flat land while building the Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw. He’s a major South Carolina Gamecocks booster.
But the Kentucky Derby.
“The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
A Run for the Roses.
Competitive adrenaline pumps faster as post time approaches.
“I’ve never done this before,” said Rice, wearing a Bulls Bay golf shirt and a big grin. “I can only imagine that winning would be unbelievable.”
Gamecocks to thoroughbreds.
Clearly, there’s something about the underdog nature of Confidence Game, a handsome dark baybrown, Kentucky-bred horse. Kentucky Derby odds ranging from 30-1 to 40-1 (going into the weekend) and “bargain basement star” status appeals to a rider who took an unconventional career path.
Rice’s grandfather died young but the paymaster at an Anderson textile mill left law books that Rice’s father, also in the textile business, kept while moving his family around the Carolinas. Young Joe enjoyed poking through the pages, and got into politics while attending high school in Gastonia, N.C. He liked debates, and the lawyers he met during school trips to the state capitol in Raleigh.
But Rice enjoyed the University of South Carolina’s Alpha Tau Omega frat fun more than classrooms. He failed to get into law school on his first try, and wiggled in only after finishing in the top half of a summer school program.
“I was just fortunate I got in law school,” Rice said.
Confidence Game was originally purchased for a mere $25,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He is owned by Don’t Tell My Wife Stables and trained by veteran Keith Desormeaux.
Never mind the third-place finish at the Lecomte Stakes in New Orleans in January; Confidence Game roared to victory at the $1 million Rebel Stakes with James Graham aboard Feb. 25 on a muddy track at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. He beat odds of 18.5-1.
“He had a ton left down the lane,” Graham told reporters after the race. “He keeps maturing and doing things the right way. I think the sky is the limit for him.”
The 2022 South Carolina football team gets partial credit for the Rice connection to Confidence Game. The family was in Lexington for the Gamecocks’ 24-14 victory at Kentucky on Oct. 8 when Rice ran into some fellow South Carolina grads who encouraged him to visit the stables at Coolmore, a Kentucky breeding giant.
One stud farm discussion led to another. Soon, Rice was part of Ocean Reef Racing, a syndicate that bought into a Confidence Game stake.
The question is, what took so long?
Rice and his family have been “horse people” since Joe hung his first shingle. “This is the one puzzle piece of the equestrian world we haven’t done yet,” said Ann Rice Ervin, Joe and Lisa Rice’s daughter and a Motley Rice attorney.
She competes nationally on the hunter/jumper circuit.
Her 7-year-old son Beckett loves riding and adores the mini-horses on the Awendaw property.
Joe Rice’s family has been involved in equestrian adventures for years. Ann Rice Ervin, Joe’s daughter and a Motley Rice attorney and competitive hunter/jumper rider, with her son, 7-year-old Beckett.
“He thinks he’s a singing, roping cowboy,” Joe said.
The family has different names for the 500 acres in Awendaw.
“Our Montana,” Joe said.
“Awendaw Montana,” Ann said.
That’s where Joe spent hours atop Thunder while contemplating the tobacco settlement strategy. “I would go out there on Saturdays and Sundays and go ride and take my Dictaphone and think of things
and responses,” Rice said. “It was really a relaxing time for me.”
Watching the Kentucky Derby at historic Churchill Downs will be more of a thrill ride. The whole family is looking forward to the trip to Louisville. Rice will wait until the mile and a quarter race is over before deciding if he wants more thoroughbred action.
“I guess success breeds success,” Rice said. “If we get lucky here, why not try? But you can take a loss, too.”
Along with the horse motif at Rice’s office are all the horse photos stored in his cell phone. He loves to show them, including the one of a black and white mural featuring the likes of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, the Lone Ranger and Gene Autry riding high. It hangs on a wall at home.
But no photo yet of Joe Rice and his horse-loving family with Confidence Game.
“We’re waiting,” he said, “to take that one.”