We may go a long, long time before the Breeders' Cup gets a storyline any more bizarre than the tale of Rick's Natural Star running in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Woodbine in late October 1996.
With nothing to preclude him from entry other than $40,000, like a bolt from the blue at the time of pre-entries came Rick's Natural Star, a 7-year-old New Mexico-bred gelding who had never run on turf. He had not started in more than a year—his last race was at 5 1/2 furlongs for $3,500 claimers—and had not won a race since 1993.
His owner and trainer, Dr. William Livingston, a veterinarian from Artesia, N.M., described himself as "different," but we'll just say he was a one-of-a-kind kinda guy.
Livingston made for a good story. For example, he said he trained Rick's Natural Star by exercising him alongside a truck, clocking his horse by the speedometer to gauge the time.
The gelding and Livingston began their journey to Woodbine in a one-horse trailer. One of the few Breeders' Cup rules for starting was that if a horse had not raced in 30 days prior to entering, it had to have at least one published work. That was no problem for Livingston. On his way from New Mexico to Woodbine he detoured to Remington Park in Oklahoma where Rick's Natural Star worked six furlongs in 1:21.46.
As they closed in on the Canadian border near Detroit, Rick's Natural Star was housed in a temporary corral in the parking lot of a budget motel. Of course, there were paperwork troubles at the border, but they made it through. Livingston arrived at Woodbine without a feed tub, water bucket, bridle, or saddle.
"Livingston was a real lightning rod for the Breeders' Cup," said Jim Gluckson, senior communications consultant for Breeders' Cup. "A lot of people didn't think he or the horse had the credentials to run. They cast an unexpected element to our first Breeders' Cup outside the United States. A lot of the media was focused on Cigar's farewell, but Rick's Natural Star added another element."
The trainer offered pony rides to members of the media—a few accepted—and at the post-position draw he was quoted as saying, "Do you think the Sheikh will be mad when I beat him?"
Oddly enough some people actually bet on the horse as he went off at 56-1 under rider Lisa McFarland. There was plenty of concern from others in the race that Rick's Natural Star could bother a serious contender, but his tour of the turf course went pretty much without incident. Breaking from post 4, Rick's Natural Star challenged for the lead for a half-mile before being graciously eased up by McFarland. They were officially "distanced" by winner Pilsudski and Sheikh Mohammed's trio of Singspiel, Swain, and Shantou.
The following January, Rick's Natural Star showed up in a $7,500 claiming race at Turf Paradise in Arizona. He was claimed by Larry Webber, who promptly "retired" the gelding and arranged to have him shipped to Kentucky to live out his days at Sunnyside Farm near Paris.