Courtesy of author Perry Lefko and Taylor Trade Publishing, here is an excerpt of the chapter on Ricks Natural Star. If you enjoy this, the entire book is Available at bookstores, racetrack gift shops, and Amazon.com.
Ricks Natural Star and Bill Livingston schooling in the walking ring at Woodbine.
The late Dub Rice and his wife Carolyn, longtime breeders based in eastern New Mexico, bred their mare Malaysian Star to the sire Natural Native and the product of the two became a chestnut colt born in 1989. The Rices named the colt, who would eventually be gelded, Ricks Natural Star in honor of their son Ricky and nominated the horse to the Breeders' Cup. The Rices nominated all their horses to the Breeders' Cup program. Although the Rices never had one of their horses run in any of the championship races in their silks, it just made good business sense to nominate. The Breeders Cup Ltd. runs a series of stakes races throughout the year leading up to the championship day of racing, and there are financial rewards for breeders who have paid into the program by nominating their foals or stallions.
And, hey, you just never know when a horse can up and run a big race and suddenly find itself in the Breeders' Cup. It saves the owner supplementary payments—between 9 and 20 percent of the purse—if the horse is not nominated to the program. In the case of Ricks Natural Star he never would have been entered in the Breeders' Cup if he hadn't been nominated as a foal because of the exorbitant cost of supplementing—between $180,000 and $400,000.
Ricks Natural Star grew into a big, strapping horse, standing some 17 hands high from the withers (or shoulders) to the ground, the equivalent of a human standing slightly less than six feet tall. But who would have thought this lanky runner would ever make it to the Breeders' Cup? Certainly not the people who conditioned him early in his career, that's for sure.
The Rices sent the colt to O. Dwain Grissom, who trained for them at Turf Paradise in Arizona. It didn't take long for Grissom and his wife, Bobbie, who galloped the colt, to deduce Ricks Natural Star didn't have much talent or speed.
"He couldn't go," Bobbie Grissom recalled. "He was just slow. He probably got up to working a half a mile but he just didn't show too much."
"They were going to give him some time (at the farm), hoping he would change," Dwain recalled. "I said ‘You can give him all the time you want, this horse isn't going to change.' He was slow. He had no talent. Mentally, the horse was okay, he'd give you a hundred percent, but a hundred percent wasn't much.'"
The Grissoms told the Rices they were wasting their money and recommended selling the colt. The Rices put him in a registered horse sale in New Mexico and he fetched some $1,200. And that was the end of that deal. Or so it seemed.
Ricks Natural Star did, indeed, make it to the races for his new owner. Gail Richardson, who operated an insecticide business called The Bug Man in Artesia, New Mexico, turned Ricks Natural Star over to trainer Ralph (Bino) Black Jr. The veteran trainer had won several stakes and handicaps in his career, although Ricks Natural Star wouldn't be among his elite runners. Ricks Natural Star debuted as a three-year-old, but didn't win his first career race until his seventh start, June 25, 1993, at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. It took eight more starts before Ricks Natural Star won again, this time on October 27 at Sunland Park in New Mexico, in a $5,000 claiming race limited to non-winners of two lifetime. Ricks Natural Star won by six lengths, but that became the last time he would be photographed in victory. Overall between 1992 and 1995, he ran 23 times, posting two wins, five seconds and two thirds and earnings of only $6,093.
When Gail Richardson died, his estate took over the horse, but there was a period when Ricks Natural Star was turned out without any plans to race him again. He was eventually sold for $1,000 to Robert Hnulik, who had known Richardson all his life growing up in Artesia. Hnulik, who had a quarter horse stallion to whom Richardson bred some of his mares, had a long history as a breeder and racehorse owner in the New Mexico circuit. Ricks Natural Star appealed to Hnulik because he was a big, strapping horse. Hnulik thought he could develop the horse into a hunter jumper and sell him for a profit, but first he had to condition the horse to make him appealing to a seller, so he put the horse on a feed and training program.
And it just so happened an interested purchaser lived next door.
Dr. William Livingston was a 67-year-old veterinarian who graduated from Colorado State University in 1959, practiced for a year in Mississippi, then moved to Artesia, New Mexico, and set up a practice on one acre of Hnulik's 40-acre property. Livingston had fancied Ricks Natural Star ever since deworming him as a two-year-old. Livingston had been friends with Gail Richardson and wanted to go partners with his estate on ownership of the horse, whom he would treat for free.
Livingston now had a chance to buy the horse outright and made Hnulik an unusual offer to purchase Ricks Natural Star. He put a letter in his neighbor's mailbox essentially saying he would give Hnulik $100,000 from 10% of the horse's earnings until the horse was completely paid off or retired. In the absence of that, Livingston offered $3,000 straight up.
"I kind of took it as a joke," Hnulik recalled. "I went by and told him, ‘Doc, I'm going to let you screw me out of $97,000. Just give me the cash.' I thought I'd have to train the horse for a year before I sold him. He'd have brought that much ($3,000) or more if he turned out, but you never know. There's a lot of ifs. But I get a chance to get that much cash, I didn't mind selling him."
And Hnulik did just that, taking Livingston's $3,000. Hnulik had only had the horse for some six months and had made a tidy profit. Livingston, meanwhile, had himself a racehorse.
Livingston had gone into racehorse ownership before, hoping to make some money, although he'd had nothing but bad luck, or so he claimed. The first horse died of a twisted intestine. A second one, which he raised and had under the care of a trainer, died after running onto a highway and getting killed by a pickup truck. A third horse broke its neck.
Livingston treated Ricks Natural Star twice within a month for navicular disease using a vaccine he developed in 1970. Navicular disease causes lameness in the front feet, producing a short, choppy stride, and can become chronic, effectively forcing a horse to retire. In the December, 1981 issue of The Quarter Horse Journal, Livingston was featured in an article headlined "Navicular: A Cure." He claimed to have treated 100 horses within a 14-month period and have had an 87% success rate. He had hoped to make his vaccine available on a commercial basis, but failed to receive federal approval. The authorities rejected his research because it had not been evaluated by an independent veterinarian, although Livingston had horsemen who swore by his results then and still do.
In fact, one of the best examples of his work is a onetime rodeo horse called Pixie Scoot, owned and ridden by acclaimed horsewoman Lari Dee Guy. The Abilene, Texas resident won numerous championships with the mare, purchased for a mere $67, in the American Junior Rodeo Association between 1979 and 1988. However, in 1985, the horse showed signs of navicular disease and Guy thought she'd have to retire her champion. By word of mouth, Guy's father, Larry, heard of Livingston and arranged to have the horse treated. The horse responded to the treatments and was able to compete for another few years, ultimately having to retire because of her age.
Livingston noticed immediate improvement in the stride of Ricks Natural Star after two vaccinations in a month's time. He started training the horse, albeit in an unconventional way, on the five-eighths of a mile oval on Hnulik's property. While driving his pickup truck with one hand, Livingston had a hold of the lead shank attached to the horse. Hnulik had seen Livingston's training method and didn't consider it all that unusual. In fact, he said he has done that himself on occasion with horses, albeit limiting the speed so that the horse is galloping slowly beside the truck. And, if you talk to enough horsemen you'll probably hear about training variations similar to what Livingston did, although probably not to the extreme which he claimed. He said he drove three times around the oval at about 30 miles per hour, and then made a clucking sound to encourage the horse to go faster and gauge his stamina. Livingston said the horse picked up his speed significantly and started running at about 45 miles per hour, about 10–15 miles per hour faster than thoroughbred horses running full out. In Hnulik's opinion, it is highly doubtful the horse had been travelling as quickly as Livingston claimed, but that's when Livingston started to dream about running his horse in a race.
He began training the horse harder—or so he claimed—for about two months afterward, logging 12 miles overall in two sessions a day, using a lunge line. He thought the horse had the ability to run a distance of a mile and a half and wanted to run him in an allowance race—the competitive division in between the meat-and-potatoes claiming level and the high-end stakes set—but the horse didn't meet the qualifying standards. However, because Ricks Natural Star had been nominated to the Breeders' Cup, which was indicated on his registration papers, Livingston decided to take a shot in the ultimate competition. If the horse ran well, Livingston could make a case for his navicular vaccine and also collect some purse money.
Livingston set his sights on the $2 Million Turf, a mile and a half race on the grass, even though the horse had never run on that surface in any of his previous lifetime starts. The horse hadn't raced in 14 months, had last run in a $3,500 claiming race for non-winners of three lifetime and hadn't won in three years. Tackling seasoned horses, many of whom had been running against the best in the world in their division, Ricks Natural Star appeared unqualified and insufficiently conditioned to meet the challenge.
Livingston told Hnulik about his plan and his neighbor couldn't believe it. In his opinion, the horse "couldn't run to pay his own way" in races restricted to New Mexico-breds. Now Livingston was talking about going to the Olympics of horse racing off a lengthy layoff.
"I thought nobody but Doc would do it," Hnulik said. "Doc is a little eccentric. It was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime shot."
It would cost Livingston $20,000 to pre-enter the horse and a further $20,000 to enter. He didn't have the second amount, so he went to a bank and secured a personal loan using his practice as collateral.
Livingston applied for and received a trainer's license granted by the New Mexico Racing Commission. Though details are somewhat sketchy, at some point the Racing Commission called up the Breeders' Cup Ltd. seeking to know if a license in New Mexico would be honored in Canada. For the first time in the history of the event, the Breeders' Cup would be conducted outside of the U.S. When the Breeders' Cup Ltd. first had a hint Livingston might pre?enter his horse, a search was done of its last five races, a background-checking process that is common for all starters, particularly useful for those with unfamiliar backgrounds. When the Breeders' Cup Ltd. did its research it basically dismissed the horse as a possible pre-entry for the Turf. Certainly, it never expected to see an owner put up a total of $40,000 to run a horse that appeared hopelessly unqualified.
When, in fact, Livingston arranged to pre-enter the horse, Pam Blatz-Murff, the Breeders' Cup Ltd. senior vice-president of operations, helped him to coordinate the process. On October 14, well before the noon deadline closed to pre-enter horses for the 1996 Breeders' Cup, Livingston FedExed his $20,000 payment. Sixteen horses were pre-entered, two more than the maximum number that could start, and the Breeders' Cup Ltd. indicated to Livingston his horse ranked last in the order of preference. The field-selection system is based on a point system from top-three results in American graded stakes races combined with the judgment of a panel of racing experts. The first seven horses are ranked solely on the graded stakes criteria; the remaining pre-entered horses are ranked by the panel using its own criteria. Essentially, the latter selection process is designed to include horses that have run outside of North America.
There was virtually nothing within the rules of the Breeders' Cup to automatically prevent Livingston from pre-entering his horse, but if the two horses ranked ahead didn't drop out Ricks Natural Star could not enter into the body of the race. The Breeders' Cup Ltd. also told him he needed to qualify the horse in at least one workout according to acceptable standards of the host track, in this case Woodbine, which was supervised under the aegis of the Ontario Racing Commission. In every racing jurisdiction there are house rules and racing commission rules to protect the betting public and ensure the safety of the horses. In this case, because Ricks Natural Star had been absent from the races for so long and hadn't had a published timed workout at a racetrack or training center, there was little information for the public to gauge his fitness.
In addition, the horse had to pass strict fitness and soundness inspections by veterinarians assigned by the host track and the Breeders' Cup Ltd., a process instituted a few years before. On October 16, 10 days before the races were run, the Breeders' Cup Ltd. announced the pre-entries. Ricks Natural Star received scant media attention, but that was about to change in the days, weeks and even months to follow.
With no guarantee his horse would enter into the race, Livingston headed off to Woodbine—some 2,400 miles away—taking a long—and bizarre—journey. While most horsemen facing a similar distance would have flown their horse via an equine air carrier, Livingston did not have the money to cover the expense. The cost of pre-entering had practically tapped him out.
So, Livingston decided to van his horse. After loaning a trailer from Hnulik, Livingston commenced his journey, accompanied by Javier Chavez, who had worked with the veterinarian, and blacksmith Gene Pitzer, who lived about 15 miles north of Artesia in Lake Arthur. Collectively this was like the Beverly Hillbillies loading up the truck and going off to Beverly. Pitzer and Chavez drove Livingston's pickup truck hitched up to the horse van, while Livingston drove a van because he had to make a separate stop during the journey to vaccinate a couple of horses in Kansas for navicular disease. After driving some 500 miles, the trio stopped off at Remington Park in Oklahoma to work the horse the next day three-quarters of a mile, half the distance of a mile and a half race.
The appearance of the horse created a buzz at the modest track, which rarely has one of its own runners or a local connection in the Breeders' Cup. Jockey Sally Williams, who had ridden for about four years at that point, happened to be standing in the receiving barn with her helmet on and Livingston asked her if she wouldn't mind working his horse. He didn't have any tack, which is unusual to say the least for a horseman heading off to a race, let alone something as prestigious as the Breeders' Cup, so Williams borrowed some equipment from a trainer. Williams thought the horse resembled somebody's pony because of his thick coat of hair that lacked color and sheen. Livingston told Williams he'd been training the horse next to his truck, which Williams didn't consider abnormal at all. She'd ridden many horses that had been exercised that way.
The horse acted kind and gentle on the track as Williams prepared to put him to work. It became apparent to Williams a quarter of a mile into the timed exercise that the horse lacked speed, so she cracked him with the whip after another eighth of a mile, but Ricks Natural Star failed to accelerate. She hit him a few more times—including switching the stick to the opposite hand and whipping at different points of contact to rouse the horse—but it didn't matter. Ricks Natural Star didn't react, galloping along at the same pedestrian clip.
He was clocked in a turtle-like time of 1:21 2/5 seconds, the slowest of four times at that distance on the day at Remington, and almost too slow to be recorded as an official workout. Michelle Gass, who had been a clocker for some two years at the time, timed the workout.
"It's so hard to forget, it was so sad," she recalled.
Dale Day, the track's director of marketing/publicity, conducted an interview with Livingston to air in-house, while members of the media who happened upon the scene had separate chats with him.
"No one could believe what was going on anyway," Dale said. "Everybody realized this horse didn't belong. The guy said he was chasing a dream and that's fine, but everybody knew realistically that nothing great would come from that as far as the horse was concerned."
Williams was quoted as saying the horse was "big and fuzzy and not ready" and claims she tried to convey that to Livingston.
"I tried to tell him in a really nice way (the horse) was slow, but he wasn't in that mind frame to hear that," Williams said.
Livingston chalked up the slow work to the horse feeling fatigued from the long van ride.
Williams said Livingston did not have help available to cool out the horse after the work and she had to do it herself.
Williams figured the horse had been three or four works away from running in a race—a cheap claiming race.
Livingston asked Williams if she wanted to ride the horse in the race, but he couldn't pay for her expenses, an obligation that is part and parcel of flying in a jockey. With a full slate of rides at Remington Park on Breeders' Cup day, coupled with the cost of air fare, hotel accommodation and any sundry expenses, Williams simply couldn't afford to make the trip—particularly when she knew Ricks Natural Star had no shot. And yet, she'd have done it if Livingston had paid her way.
"I'd have done it," she said. "I'd have run and I didn't care just because I wanted to see (superstar horse) Cigar and it would have been something I remembered for the rest of my life."
Williams' remarks about the horse, published in an article in the Daily Racing Form, alarmed the Ontario Racing Commission stewards, who were concerned about the horse's soundness and fitness, and they contacted her.
The Breeders' Cup Ltd. management, many stationed at Woodbine in temporary headquarters, watched from afar. Pam Blatz-Murff said the Breeders' Cup Ltd. tried to help Livingston, but acknowledged she might have advised him to reconsider his plan because of the toll on the horse.
"I should have done that, but I didn't," Livingston said. "When the horse got up to 45 miles per hour, that's what got me in trouble. I just got excited about a horse that could run that fast and I got carried away. It just progressed and I stayed with it and I shouldn't have. I should have done something else with the horse. It just snowballed on me."
After the workout, the trio left, accompanied by a fourth person—an individual known only as Fuzzy whom Livingston recruited for driving purposes. Livingston stopped off in Kansas, while Pitzer and Chavez carried on with the horse. The parties later hooked up in Missouri.
By this point, the epic journey of Ricks Natural Star had started to pick up national attention—and outrage. One fan e-mailed the United States Humane Society expressing concern about perceived exploitation of Ricks Natural Star by Livingston, the safety of all the other entrants in the race and the inability of Breeders' Cup officials to automatically withdraw the horse for fear of a lawsuit.
"This is a serious matter and presents an historic opportunity for the racing industry and the Humane Society to work together toward a common goal," the e-mailer, who did not include a name, wrote.
The e-mailer also sent a message to the Breeders' Cup.
"One of the reasons I love thoroughbred racing is that horses and humans share the same goals in racing," the e-mail began. "Horses naturally thrill to the race and delight in their own speed and in the shoulder-to-shoulder effort to reach a specific spot first. But in the case of Ricks Natural Star, I believe that running him could be very detrimental to the horse. This is a horse who has not run in over a year, who had three years off before his three 1995 efforts, who has not fared well against very low-level claimers, etc., etc. To exploit him by running him so far over his head is an overtly egotistical move…and cannot be anything but detrimental to the horse.
"One would have thought that rules to prevent a failed $3,500 claimer from being tested in the Breeders' Cup would not have been necessary; however, this event proves that rules are necessary even for the most unlikely situation. I am sure that appropriate revisions will be made in your policies for future years. All the foregoing assumes that Ricks Natural Star and the others reach the finish line safely. A horse who is so mismatched with the competition adds a dangerous element to an already dangerous sport.
"I have heard that your appeals to the connections of Ricks Natural Star to withdraw have not been successful. Therefore, I appeal to you to establish an important precedent by disqualifying him by executive order on humane grounds."
Pam Blatz-Murff responded to the e-mail.
"First a point to make. Although we strongly discouraged Mr. Livingston from pre?entering the horse because of the danger to himself and to others, we are unable to deny the horse entry because we want to. The stewards of the racing jurisdiction that is hosting the event is the final authority. The stewards of the Ontario Jockey Club have declined to take a stand, (so) we have asked for them to establish the following: The horse must be inspected prior to a workout on the grounds. We would like for him to work a mile on the turf. He has to have a gate card. We have established an international veterinary inspection team that has to inspect every horse on the grounds. They have a physical inspection and have to observe the horse moving. We would like blood drawn after his work. Now provided he has passed all the above, we cannot deny him entry. We have no non-competitive rule on the books nor does the OJC. It simply has never come up before."
The journey literally came to a halt when Livingston lacked the necessary horse documentation to cross into Canada. Because of an outbreak in the U.S. southwest of vesicular stomatitis—an equine disease that resembles foot-and-mouth disease in cattle—border officials had concerns about the horse's health and could not allow Livingston and Ricks Natural Star entry into Canada. He took up temporary residence at a motel in Detroit and lodged his horse outside, setting up a temporary corral with ropes. He worked towards straightening out the horse's health papers, along with the help of the Breeders' Cup Ltd., which was trying to facilitate the process.
In an article in The Blood-Horse, Breeders' Cup president Ted Bassett addressed the delicate situation of Ricks Natural Star.
"I don't want to chastise this fellow (Livingston) like he's some sort of nefarious character because he hasn't done anything wrong," Bassett said. "But we have to be concerned about (the horse) being competitive and about the safety of the rest of the field. This is just a very strange set of circumstances and we will be going to great lengths to determine the horse's fitness and soundness."
Livingston finally arrived on late Monday night, six days before the races and two days before the final entries. By this time, two other pre-entered horses had been withdrawn, so the horse had a chance to run, pending inspection from veterinarians and passing a qualifying test from the gate on the main track and a separate qualifying test on the grass.
Livingston didn't bring any practical equipment with him—even rudimentary things such as a water bucket, feed tub, saddle or brush—only a five-gallon bucket and a ratty old halter. He was like a rank-amateur golfer going into the Masters without a bag and only a club or two. Mike Keogh, a trainer situated at the opposite end of the barn where Ricks Natural Star had been stabled, and others provided the visiting horseman with some temporary equipment. It's not uncommon for one horseman to help out another, particularly one arriving on a temporary basis from another track, but it's quite another thing to arrive with next to no equipment.
Early the following morning, journeyman jockey/journalist Tom Wolski visited Livingston. Born in the U.S., but residing in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Wolski writes a horse racing column for the Vancouver Province and hosts a cable television show on horse racing. He also co-hosts International Racing Tours, which annually takes a group of horse racing fans to the Breeders' Cup. Every year, Wolski looks for an underdog story in the Cup to write about in his column. When he heard about Ricks Natural Star, he pegged that as the horse he would follow. When Wolski first arrived at Livingston's barn well before the majority of the media, the owner/trainer had been looking for someone to gallop his horse, claiming his exercise rider hadn't shown up for the assignment. Livingston sized up Wolski, figured he was a jockey and asked him if he wanted to gallop the horse, but Wolski declined. Livingston took it one step further and asked him if he wanted to ride the horse in the race.
"He didn't know me from a hole in the wall and he wanted to ride me," Wolski recalled. "The last thing I wanted to do was ride a horse a mile and a half that was going to be gasping for air and the (television) cameras were going to be focusing on him. I would have been in shape. I was fit to ride, but I just didn't want to do it. It was a case of where I didn't want to embarrass myself…I said to myself, ‘Imagine turning down a Breeders' Cup mount.' How many jocks that aren't a star rider turn down a horse in the Breeders' Cup? Good riders can do that, but the average jockey isn't going to get to ride in the Breeders' Cup. You dream about that and the Kentucky Derby, but under those circumstances I didn't think that was my turn to make my debut. I thought I'd be a laughingstock. I didn't want to be the butt of the jokes."
He did, however, ask Livingston if he could sit on the horse while doing an interview.
"Here I'm a jockey and I'm on a Breeders' Cup horse and I'm doing a column," Wolski recalled. "In my own thinking, this is kind of cool, especially when the guy said the horse is kind —and he was."
When the media came by, Livingston regaled them with his life story, his inventions and his dream of running a horse in the Breeders' Cup. Livingston added to the sideshow when he allowed a broadcast journalist to sit on his horse, who he claimed was kind and gentle. In retrospect, he claimed it was only "a joke thing," something he never intended to be publicized. Standing off to the side witnessing the whole spectacle was local jockey Lisa McFarland.
McFarland, who had been riding for two years but had still been classified as an apprentice because she hadn't won 45 career races, hung around for close to an hour, watching the media and Livingston interact. Then she approached him, offering to gallop the horse. When McFarland's boyfriend (and future husband) Tommy Schell first read about Livingston's plans to run Ricks Natural Star, he told McFarland that would be her Breeders' Cup mount. He figured no one would want to ride the horse, so she figured galloping the horse might give her a shot to ride Ricks Natural Star in the race. Livingston accepted McFarland's offer to gallop the horse and they arranged a time for the following morning. She asked him if he had any tack, not even sure if he knew what that meant, and said she'd bring along a saddle.
Later that night, Livingston returned to the hotel near the track where he had been staying. He came into the bar where a group of horsemen were sitting around having a few beers and watching the local news, which happened to be broadcasting a story about Livingston. One of the horsemen, Tom Bowden, watched the item and thought it was a joke, possibly part of a movie. Then he spotted Livingston standing behind him and they engaged in a conversation. Livingston showed Bowden and the other horsemen photos of himself training the horse with his pickup truck. Bowden had heard of this method employed by harness horsemen but never with thoroughbreds. As he listened to Livingston, the open-minded Bowden considered him a "knowledgeable" man but "not off the wall."
What struck Bowden immediately was that Livingston had no money and he wondered if Livingston's plan to run in the race had been nothing more than a gaffe by some people gambling to see if he could actually do it.
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