By Maryjean Wall
The middle-aged man and his pals who were hauling a horse in a trailer to the 1996 Breeders’ Cup were not joyfully singing “Oh Canada” while they stewed at the border in disbelief.
Customs officers at Windsor, Ontario, had ordered them back across the river to Detroit. The officers didn’t give a hoser’s hoot about the bucket of gold the older man believed was his to grab at the end of the trail, at Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto. They were denying the horse entry into Canada because it lacked the proper paperwork.
Much more was unfolding in this little drama. Our man at the center was Dr. William H. Livingston, 66, then from Artesia, New Mexico, and now deceased. As he later told a reporter, he let his composure slip into an unfortunate diplomatic slip: he said he called the border guard a “fat bitch.” Said it to her face, yes. Shouted in voce fortissimo, like a piano man pounding discordant chords in a fit of fugue.
And so, the border guard’s day was ruined. This shocking lapse of manners was an affront to her station, standing as she was at the doorstep to a country renowned for its politeness ethos. (See Canadian Bacon, 1995, starring Alan Alda, et al). This incident playing out on the Windsor side of the border proved once again to Canadians that The Ugly American is in fact real, closer to fact, even, than the ‘50s novel that broadened the term into worldwide lexicon.
Dr. Livingston and his pals were not to be dissuaded. They returned to Detroit as ordered. They holed up while Livingston got his paperwork in order for the horse, whose name was Rick’s Natural Star. And so continued the long ride to Canada from New Mexico for this horse, whose star will never fade in Breeders’ Cup lore.
Back in Detroit, the good doctor (who was actually a veterinarian) found a budget motel along a road connecting Toledo to Detroit. He and his buddies gathered their wits while Rick’s Natural Star lounged in a corral hastily and surreptitiously constructed of ropes in back of the motel. (It has been reported that they never bothered to check if the motel accepted pets). Dr. Livingston, we presume, took Rick’s temperature, checked under his tail, and collected the required blood sample so he could produce the proper paperwork. A few days later the men set off once more for the border, mindful that Livingston must not, MUST NOT let his tongue slip if he met up again with that border patrol agent.
Some four or five hours later, after passing through customs at Windsor, the truck and trailer pulled into Woodbine in the dark of night. Understandably Livingston and his buddies were fatigued, never mind the fatigue Rick’s Natural Star must have felt. The horse had spent several nights outdoors on the seedy side of Michigan. That place is enough to scare anybody. But now Rick was in Toronto, ushered into a stall strangely lacking the customary feed tub and hay, etc., that a horse requires. The good doctor had neglected to bring equipment. Rick went the night without a snack.
The next morning racetrackers discovered Rick in his stall, looking parched and hungry. They brought him hay and water, lending him a feed tub and whatever else Rick required. Dr. Livingston arrived much later in the morning following a refreshing sleep. Rick was clueless about what was coming at him in the next few days but our man Livingston was not. He held press conferences outside the barn, telling how his horse would win the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Turf. And this was a horse who hadn’t won a race in three years.
Throughout that week preceding the Breeders’ Cup, the buzz about the backstretch had at first been largely centered on the renowned Cigar. He was the first American racehorse since Citation in 1948 to win 16 consecutive races. The streak had been broken several months previously to the Breeders’ Cup, but Cigar was heavily favored to win the 1 ¼-mile Classic. Fans wanted him to win, for this would be his final race before retirement.
Then Rick’s Natural Star showed up. Rick was a nobody: a $3,000 purchase who hadn’t run in a race in more than a year and who clearly did not belong on this championship day of racing. NBC mused on its race day broadcast: was this a Cinderella story in the making or a farce? Livingston had borrowed the $40,000 he needed to pay the entry fee into the 1 ½-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf and Cup officials could find no way to keep him out.
You’d have thought Rick was Cigar for the attention he attracted in the days counting down to his race. Livingston did not even bring a saddle or bridle for the horse’s morning exercise, so add these to the items loaned him by helpful backstretch persons. There’s no sorrier sight than a horse stuck up a creek – er, shedrow — without a saddle for his back.
Livingston, meanwhile, vaulted immediately into celebrity status: he invited media members to climb onto the horse’s back one morning outside the barn, and two actually took him up on his invitation. This defied not only common sense but racing authority rules requiring an exercise rider’s license to get on a horse.
Livingston regaled the media with tales of how he had trained Rick back in New Mexico: by having him galloped alongside a pickup truck while Livingston drove, with him holding onto the horse outside the open driver’s window. Twice, the horse had kicked the truck while galloping along at 30 miles per hour. “We survived,” the good doctor informed NBC.
The good doctor also informed the media that he was at the Breeders’ Cup to publicize the cure he had found for feline leukemia. He said he also had discovered a way to deodorize manure. He didn’t say if this manure was from horses – or bulls. Oh well. The manure thing was good for a few raised eyebrows. And a few laughs.
Rick had had only one workout in more than a year. He had never raced on turf, the surface he would encounter for the first time in his Breeders’ Cup race. He would be faced with international turf stars, yet Dr. Livingston approached race day unafraid and undeterred. The Rick’s Natural Star express to the Breeders’ Cup had been a joke from the moment the horse and owner/trainer departed New Mexico. Dr. Livingston had taken out a trainer’s license only two weeks before the big race. Just to make it all legal.
Race day arrived. Rick’s post time odds were 55-1. He was ridden by jockey Lisa McFarland who actually got Rick up nearly to the lead in the first half-mile. Then McFarland began, wisely, to ease him out of the pack. He was listed as “distanced” when finishing last in this race won by Pilsudski.
A few months later, in 1997, Rick was running in a $7,500 claiming race at Turf Paradise in Arizona when a man named Larry Weber claimed him just to get the poor horse off the race track. Weber promptly retired the gelding to Sunnyside Farm near Paris, Kentucky, where Rick’s Natural Star lived out his days in comfort: a reward long overdue for a horse who tried and gave his best. He lived to be 28 years old. He passed from this life Nov. 27, 2017 after 20 years on Sunnyside Farm.
Maryjean Wall is the former turf writer for The Lexington Herald-Leader. She retired from that publication following a career that spanned four decades and included three Eclipse Awards and an AP Sports Editors Award. She holds a Ph.D. in U. S. History, has taught history at University of Kentucky, and continues to write about horse racing as a free-lancer. She has been published in Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, Forbes Life, Cincinnati, and Keeneland, among other publications. She has authored two books focused on horses and racing: How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders; also, Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. When she is not writing, she is photographing, always pursuing the creative muse.