Star outsider crashes Cup party

Richard Edmondson reports from Toronto on the odyssey of an American no-hoper
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The Independent Online
A missionary for the absurd arrived at Woodbine racetrack yesterday and his name is Dr Livingston. It has always been presumed that the Breeders' Cup would represent the ultimate test for ultimate horses, but William H Livingston came hacking through the jungle yesterday with comfortably the worst beast ever to appear at the series.

It has taken Livingston five days to box-drive the seven-year-old gelding Ricks Natural Star from his base in Artesia, New Mexico, and there are no guarantees that the horse will complete the mile and a half of Saturday's Turf any quicker.

Ricks Natural Star has never run on grass or over 12 furlongs and the last time he gloried on the race course was in a $3,500 claiming race at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, last year. He was last, as he had been on his previous two starts.

Ricks Natural Star was bred by 69-year-old Richard "Dub" Rice, who says he will not reach 70 if the gelding emerges with any sort of credit at the weekend. "If he had been worth anything, we would have kept him but we sold him before he ever raced," he said. "Every horse out of his dam [Malaysian Star] has had a breathing problem of some kind. We couldn't do anything with him.

"Are you sure you've got the right horse here? If this horse does any good in the Breeders' Cup you can just cross me off your list because I think I would just keel over."

Dr Livingston bought Ricks Natural Star (and his all-important nomination to the Breeders' Cup series) three months ago for $3,000. The 66-year- old veterinarian, who says his practice ranges "from parakeets to elephants", has never trained a horse before and has held his first licence for a week. He sees this apparent callowness as no bar to success in Toronto. "We're going to win it," he told me. "Put $300 on him and get yourself a new car."

Ricks Natural Star's price will be such on Saturday that a wager of that magnitude would earn enough to buy General Motors. William Hill offer 100-1 and heaven only knows where all the other zeros have gone.

The good doctor did not look exactly scrubbed-up for surgery yesterday and few people would have let him near their pets. He was tired and stubbly and he drawled through his story. Bits of oat were sprinkled on his jumper and a cowboy belt, with a silver-plated buckle, appeared to be having a strenuous time in keeping his tummy at bay.

Livingston's expedition started on Thursday morning, when Breeders' Cup organisers realised to their inestimable chagrin that sufficient horses were dropping out of the Turf to allow Ricks Natural Star a run. By Friday, the hallowed crucible that is Remington Park race track in Oklahoma City had been reached and the horse stopped off for a bit of work. He recorded 1:21 and 2/5ths over six furlongs, which is not thought to be a course record.

The rider that day was Sally Williams, who so delighted Livingston with her initial affinity with the horse that he offered her the ride in Canada. The pair are well matched. In a 15-year career Sally Williams has ridden just 49 winners. She has never competed in a stakes race of any kind. That night, as trainer and jockey talked Toronto tactics, Ricks Natural Star roomed in an outside stable.

By Sunday the team had reached Detroit, but the athlete still did not have a roof over his head. He was corralled by rope behind a motel as Livingston began to wonder if the authorities were ganging up. "They tried to talk me out of the whole thing to start with," he said. "And there was some trouble at the border. They may have encouraged them to be assholes there, but it maybe that they just do that naturally."

In the early hours of yesterday the caravan of the ridiculous pulled into Woodbine, and the great trek was over. Livingston estimates it will take him five years to recover financially from this escapade, as he has dispersed about $50,000 in entry fees and travel. And he's more than happy to welcome those who wish to ease his financial burden.

The man who has developed a treatment for horses inflicted with navicular disease has three more ``projects'' on the go and needs money to develop them. Choose from a fertiliser minus the aroma of manure, SR38 - a drug that alleviates shipping fever in cattle - and a patented product that prevents premature ageing. The last named will be of particular use to the Breeders' Cup executives.

As an early part of the build-up yesterday the Doc invited one of the British press corps to vault on to his horse's back, a invitation that was duly taken up.

Then, with boldness growing, Dr William H Livingston, outlined the future for the machine that is Ricks Natural Star. He has forwarded entry papers to the Orient and is awaiting news on whether his gelding will receive the call for the Hong Kong Invitational. "I only want to run him in $100,000- plus races," he said. "And I think that would be one hell of a trip."